The Theatreguide.London Review
Like her Top Girls, Caryl Churchill's 1979 play is actually two in one, two separate stories in differing modes that bounce off each other to resonate dramatically and thematically. And Thea Sharrock's new production makes that happen more excitingly and thought-provokingly than I've ever seen it happen before.
Churchill's subjects are sex, gender roles and cultural rules, and she lets us see both the serious implications and comic ridiculousness inherent in all of them.
Her first act is set in an African outpost of the Victorian British Empire, where men are manly, women are womanly, and cringeworthy clichés are spoken and lived with delightfully parodied earnestness.
The only problem, and the source of much of the comedy, is that sexuality - hetero, homo, and pan - keeps bursting through all this Victorian propriety.
No sooner have a dutiful wife and a passing explorer played a scene of repressed stiff-upper-lip repression worthy of Brief Encounter than her husband is diving under the skirt of a neighbouring widow to her rapidly weakening objections, and somewhere along the way the explorer pauses for a quickie with his host's manservant.
It's a great send-up, but serious things are being said about the fragility of the whole Victorian cultural construct, a point made visible by the device of casting a couple of the roles against gender, so that, for example, that trying-to-be-dutiful wife's predicament is both funnier and more disconcerting when it's a male actor doing it.
If the first act is parody and farce with darker overtones, the second is serious drama with occasional laughs. Set in 1979, it reverses the situation - where the Victorians had clear rules and roles that kept being complicated by sex, for the modern characters sex is easy, but brings with it uncertainties about roles and rules.
An unhappy wife slips into an affair with a lesbian single mother, soon to be joined by her gay brother in a happily if confusedly incestuous menage a trois, while the siblings' mother leaves her husband and faces the challenges of living alone and redefining herself as a woman, and the sister's abandoned husband and brother's ex-boyfriend find themselves adrift.
There's a lot of humour, as in the brother's suspicion that as a gay man who sleeps with women he may actually be a lesbian. But a lot of it is serious, and touchingly so, as we realise that the Victorians we laughed at in Act One at least had some definitions of right and wrong and of who they were, however flawed, and that life without them a hundred years later is difficult.
Again Churchill uses some cross-gender casting to help make this point, along with the artistic license of carrying over some of the characters from the first act, but letting them age only 25 years, so that, for example, the fiftyish mother of Act Two is facing life alone after knowing only the Victorian marriage of Act One.
If any of that sounds complicated, it is all clear in performance, and alternately comic and moving, and always thought-provoking.
My only criticism of Thea Sharrock's direction is that she has a little trouble sustaining the tone of camp and parody in Act One, and there are a few low-energy patches. Certainly Act Two plays beautifully, and all the resonances, rethinkings and re-evaluations are evoked without strain.
And it's certainly a field day for the cast, who each get to play two very different roles in very different styles.
Standing out in the first act are James Fleet (who later doubles as a little girl) as stalwart-if-randy husband and Bo Poraj (the brother in Act Two) as painfully dutiful wife.
In Act Two it is Nicola Walker (who played the gay son as a boy in Act One) who steals the show as the suddenly-single mother.
It helps that she is given the two best-written sequences in the whole play, a monologue about rediscovering both the joy and the comfort of masturbation and a scene in which she bravely makes her first attempt at a social life and just as bravely accepts her limited success.
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