Paul Bailey reviews The Children at the Royal Court, This House at the Garrick and Hedda Garbler at the Lyttelton theatre
Lucy Kirkwood’s brilliant new play might be described as an everyday story of three retired nuclear scientists. The Children, at the Royal Court Theatre, seems like a domestic comedy for the first thirty minutes or so. Rose, newly arrived from America, where she has sustained a successful career, has turned up unexpectedly at the isolated cottage her former friends Hazel and Robin have rented in the aftermath of a disaster at a local power station caused by a small earthquake. It takes some time for the audience to realise that Rose is not a welcome presence in the household as far as the obliging and solicitous Hazel is concerned. The limitlessly resourceful Deborah Findlay is superlative in the role of a discontented woman who has pretended to be a happily efficient housewife and mother all her adult life. Findlay is alert to every aspect of Hazel’s character, which shifts in a second from the complacent to the rancorous.
The seriousness of Lucy Kirkwood’s concerns becomes evident when Robin comes home after a day spent caring for the sick cows in the fields near the all-but-abandoned station. Robin sees Rose and is carried away again, as he was thirty-odd years past, by her beauty. Rose discreetly removes his roving hands when they reach for her breasts. Hazel becomes as jealous in her sixties as she was when the three of them were younger. There is a grimly funny scene where they toast each other with Robin’s home-made parsnip wine. Then Rose reveals the real purpose of her surprise visit. She proposes, logically and eloquently, that they should go back to the station and replace the young people who are running it in its final days. They have lives ahead of them, she reminds Hazel and Robin, and children to raise. They have a future. The best years of Rose, Hazel and Robin are behind them. The Children is seamlessly directed by James Macdonald in an appropriately run-down set by Miriam Buether. Francesca Annis is at her luminous best as Rose and Ron Cook is perfect as the still-libidinous Robin, the least faithful of husbands.
I was tempted to write that The Children eclipses everything on the London stage at the moment, but that was before I saw This House by James Graham, directed by Jeremy Herrin at the Garrick Theatre. The play is set in and around the House of Commons from 1974 to 1979, when Labour struggled to stay in power with a hung parliament and the slenderest of majorities. The actor Christopher Godwin has a great time playing three different MPs on the verge of death being wheeled in by the Labour chief whip to cast their votes. Graham is a meticulous, fair-minded recorder of the battles that went on in and out of the chamber to cling on to or to gain supremacy. If the proceedings appear farcical at times, that is the nature of the political beasts. Norman St John Stevas, for instance, is his own preposterous invention. Graham resists the temptation to sneer at the men and women we entrust with our livelihoods and by doing so ensures that the comedy on display is genuine at source.
This House runs for almost three hours, with a single interval, and there really is never a dull moment. The acting is terrific. Steffan Rhodri as Walter Harrison and Nathaniel Parker as Jack Weatherill are especially fine. Weatherill, in fact, is revealed to be a compassionate and decent man – almost the hero of the show. Malcolm Sinclair could play smooth, suave operators in his sleep, but he is very much awake as Humphrey Atkins. The Labour Party’s tendency to commit political suicide is exemplified here by the stubborn Audrey Wise, played by Sarah Woodward, who stood up for her principles at a terrible cost. You come out of the theatre thinking about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn and an uncertain future with Margaret Thatcher bidding you goodbye, in hushed and reverential tones, with the words of St Francis of Assisi in your ears.
Patrick Marber’s latest offering, Hedda Gabler (Lyttelton Theatre), is no match for Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece of the same name. Marber’s Hedda is not an aristocrat, like Ibsen’s, and she is so obviously nutty from the outset that one wonders why her American husband George Tesman (a jumpy performance from Kyle Soller, who was even jumpier a few years ago in Edward II) is so enamoured of her. The newly married pair have a huge white apartment (in Manhattan?) with an intercom to let them know who is ringing the offstage doorbell. There is an upright piano on which Hedda is given to banging out a solitary note and a blonde housekeeper as sinister and mysterious as Mrs Danvers. There are masses of celebratory flowers in buckets waiting to be torn apart and scattered by Hedda, who staples some of them to the walls. Why she hasn’t been sectioned is incomprehensible.
The fashionable director Ivo van Hove treats Marber’s text, which is desperately short on background and depth of characterisation, with the showy aplomb it deserves. Marber’s Hedda is very like Tracy Barlow, the malignant florist-cum-arsonist-cum-murderer who keeps one watching Coronation Street, and the much-acclaimed Ruth Wilson plays her as such. Lack of space prevents me from complaining further.