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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The House Of Shades
Almeida Theatre     May-June 2022

Beth Steel’s ambitious and at times moving play The House of Shades is a bleak vision of four generations of the same Midlands family from 1965 to 2019.

Set in the context of Britain’s political history, the personal lives of the family are shown to parallel and even link to the public changes that are being inflicted on their community.

The show opens in 1965 with the dead body of a man, the father of Constance, being washed. He was a harsh man who Constance (Anne-Marie Duff) later recalls beating her with his belt.

Such treatment added to her yearnings to escape, to even perhaps become a celebrity singer, a dream another man encouraged.

But when that possibility seemed to fail, she married Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie) a union committee man she doesn't really care for and has the three children Agnes (Issie Riley) Jack (Gus Barry) and Laura.

When Laura (Emma Shipp), who is said to have ‘learning difficulties,’ becomes pregnant, Constance decides her home will have no more children.

It leads her to make a selfish decision which will haunt the family including Jack, who accidentally is the only family member who realises what his mother is doing.

He, like his mother, takes the path of self interest and years later announces that he (Michael Grady-Hall as the older Jack) will break a strike, start his own business, support the Tories and have a long-term relationship with the Tory Helen (Emily Lloyd-Saini).

While he builds his business empire, switching his support to Blair’s New Labour government, the community beyond is wrecked.

By 2019 he employs four thousand but is separated from his partner and has lost contact with the remains of his family till one day Natalie (Issie Riley), the daughter of his sister Agnes, arrives to tell him his sister is dead and that she can't afford the funeral, something he refuses to help with.

She explains that she earns ‘six pounds seventy an hour. I get forty hours one week and a text message giving me ten hours the next.’ It leaves her worrying about paying the bills and eating.

When he tells her he employs a large workforce, she points out that many of them are foreign and then shocks him by saying she will be voting Tory.

Although the play’s perspective will chime with many on the liberal left, its expression is marred by a number of weaknesses. The sheer range of characters (including many family ghosts and Nye Bevin), along with the ever-changing family situation, makes it difficult to find the play’s focus.

The cast is impressive and Anne-Marie Duff gives a spectacular performance as the assertive selfish working-class mother with romantic yearnings that she sometimes expresses through song.

But her leisurely conversations with ghosts and others contrast sharply with the political discussions that are so briskly rushed through you might wonder if the director wanted to banish them completely.

All the same, this is an ambitious play perhaps on route to something that will one day consistently entertain as it helps us understand how we got to 2019. 

Keith McKenna

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Review of  House Of Shades - Almeida Theatre 2022

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