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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Becky Shaw
Almeida Theatre      Winter-Spring 2011

Gina Gionfriddo's play is set in the mythical America of Woody Allen films and TV sitcoms, in which everyone is beautiful and at least comfortably well-off, everyone is witty, and every utterance is a punchline or zinger.

Unlike the others, Gionfriddo's vision turns dark midway through the play, showing us that there is more to her characters than their shiny and brittle surfaces, and leaving us to cope with that shock.

A not-quite-as-rich-as-they-thought mother and daughter are, inevitably, at loggerheads, with their adopted son/brother in the middle.

Mother is a bitch, daughter plays at being copeless and clingy, brother is practical and efficient but, except for being a bit too close to his quasi-sister, cold and closed-up.

A second scene introduces the girl's new husband, met on a bit of a rebound from her brother, who is a warm and sympathetic Good Man.

Having established what Edward Albee (in a play coming to the Almeida later this year) called a delicate balance, Gionfriddo then throws a spanner in the works (as Albee does), here in the form of the title character, a deeply needy and neurotic young woman.

Introduced as a blind date for the brother, she reacts badly to his cool rejection, is comforted by the husband, threatens the marriage and even manages to latch onto the mother for a while - in every case bringing out qualities we might not have noticed in the others and significantly complicating their lives.

So far, so good. The witty dialogue in the first half is entertaining, the revelations and complications are believable, and even the shifting of gears as things get darker is managed smoothly.

What keeps Becky Shaw from complete success is a muddiness of intent and a deliberate refusal on the part of the playwright to reach any conclusions or take any stance at all.

Both of these suggest that she may not be aware of a gap between the play she thought she was writing and the one that's actually there. 

A programme interview with Gionfriddo calls attention to what you might have noticed yourself, an echo of Thackeray's Vanity Fair in the triggering character's name, and the playwright claims that one of her intentions was to explore questions of class prejudice in modern America.

But her parallel to Becky Sharpe breaks down because it is not that this character has been excluded from society by prejudice and is trying to move up, but she has cut herself off through her own neuroses and is trying to wheedle her way back in sideways.

More to the point, Gionfriddo says that she wants us to leave the play divided between those who sympathise with poor put-upon Becky and hate cold unfeeling Max, and those who sympathise with just-trying-to-get-by Max and wish crazy Becky would go away.

(And we're not meant to notice or care that what seemed to be the central characters in the opening scenes have been pushed to the periphery.)

But at least in this production, directed by Peter DuBois, who has shepherded the play through its previous incarnations in various American theatres, David Wilson Barnes (the one American brought over from previous stagings) plays Max as clearly emotionally stunted but not evil, while Daisy Haggard makes Becky so uninterruptedly and unmistakeably barking mad from her first entrance that she cannot do anything but make us want to run and hide.

As daughter/sister/wife, Anna Madeley captures some sympathy as the type of young woman trained to be dependent on others to make all her decisions for her but vaguely aware that that's not what she should be like.

Haydn Gwynne (mother) and Vincent Montuel (husband) go far toward creating real characters out of what we eventually realise were just written as plot devices.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Becky Shaw - Almeida Theatre 2011

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