It’s a really big risk to take such a well known play that is so associated with one particular star performance in one particular star production and to revive it with a brand new cast. The big question is, will you be constantly comparing it with Alison Steadman, Janine Duvitski and the rest, or does the new cast stand on its own two feet and make its own mark? Without question the answer is the latter. This is a superb revival of this wonderful Mike Leigh play from the 1970s, and the cast absolutely make it their own.
The set is brilliant. Even before the play starts, there are so many wonderful little details to take in. The plastic lampshades from Woolworths; the Radio Times; the trimphone (very trendy!); the fibre optic lamp (colours a bit on the subtle side perhaps); the Spanish lady doll and traditional (on the Costa Brava at least) wine pourer; I could go on. Fantastic work by the props department – when did you last see a tub of Blue Band margarine? Superb attention to detail.
Despite the progress of the years, the play remains very relevant today. If Laurence despaired at Beverley’s low-brow tastes in art and music, heaven knows what he would have made of today’s X-Factor generation. Laurence remains a lone voice fighting, in his fatally inept way, for recognition of artistic endeavour in a sea of dumbing-down. Andy Nyman’s Laurence is a very angry man. The pressures of work and living with Beverley have really taken their toll on him and he finds it toe-curlingly difficult to keep his feelings in, even when he has company round for drinks. It’s a superb performance. He brings out the full crassness of Laurence’s desperate closed-questioning line of conversation: “Sue, do you like art?”, “Do you like Paris?”; “Have you read any Dickens?” One of the things that makes the play so brilliant is the fact that the character with whom one ought to have the most sympathy is more or less just as grotesque as the others.
One part of the story that is really emphasised in this production is the mystery of what happens when Laurence and Tony go over to Sue’s house to check on the party. My memory of the original production is that in the second act Laurence and Tony exchange quizzical looks at each other as to what each of them did while they were there. In this production this has escalated to outright animosity between the two, especially from Laurence. It really spikes up the story no end and adds a level of subtlety and mystery. Joe Absolom makes a great Tony. This must be a very hard role to play as so many of Tony’s lines consist of sullen, largely monosyllabic replies – you don’t feel that the script gives you a lot of clues as to his character – but Mr Absolom was totally believable in this part – despite very nearly corpsing at the huge laugh that came when Angela said to Beverley, “well we’re alike aren’t we”.
Which brings us to Natalie Casey’s brilliant reinvention of the role of Angela. Janine Duvitski’s interpretation concentrated on her dowdy and downtrodden nature, but Ms Casey is a much more upbeat Angela – even though she still delivers the text in that marvellous deadpan tone. I feel this Angela really knows her own mind and she’s nobody’s fool – when Beverley and Tony are dancing smooch to smooch, Ms Casey, rather than just accepting it, expresses her resentment with a change of tone and some simple but wonderful comic business. But her whole performance is a comic delight, a truly delicate balance of the grotesque and the ridiculous, infused through with a kind compassion.
Compassion, but without subtlety or tact, as her wonderfully intrusive questioning about Susan’s ex-husband shows. Another wonderful performance, Susannah Harker’s Susan is not as pompous or remote as previous interpretations; she is very uncomfortable but beautifully polite, with a splendidly breathy way of saying thank you. Her distaste for some of the activity around her is perfectly realised by being delightfully underplayed, and her comic timing is superb.
And of course there’s Beverley, one of the best comic roles written for a woman in the 20th century. I always thought Alison Steadman was the absolute incarnation of Beverley and that no one else would be able to match it. Wrong. Jill Halfpenny is brilliant. Very wisely, she is not doing an Alison Steadman impersonation, but fills the character really convincingly in her own way.
Where I always thought Alison Steadman’s Beverley was sexy primarily in her own mind, Jill Halfpenny’s Beverley is full-on-sexy. There’s a lengthy scene where she is sitting provocatively in an armchair, fondling her cigarette as though it were a sex toy, whilst directly opposite her Tony is silently spellbound, subtly adjusting his position for comfort, whilst the others carry on talking oblivious to the growing attraction. In a different scene, when she is quizzing Angela about what Tony is like, she gets really turned on by the possibility he might be violent. Uncomfortable but very believable, Jill Halfpenny’s central performance is just great; totally credible, never over the top in the grotesque department, not too obviously “Essex” in her approach, and above all, very very funny.
The tragedy that ends the play comes to bring everything back down to earth and to reverse the roles – with the dominant Beverley railing pathetically, the struggling Laurence put to rest and the underdog Angela taking control. Even this final scene was given a hilarious comic twist played beautifully by Ms Casey and Mr Absolom.
An absolutely first rate production, one of the best things the Menier has produced for a long time, and it would be a crime if it didn’t transfer.