The Theatreguide.London Review
David Hare's 1988 play is not one of his very best or best-known, and this revival has some serious flaws. But it actually manages to make the play seem better than it did fifteen years ago, and it has a lovely and sensitive performance at its centre, and can be recommended on that basis.
The play is about Isobel, a genuinely nice person who is so out of step with the Me Decade of the Thatcher years that everyone either considers her a villain, her quiet goodness making them painfully aware of their failings, or exploits her through neediness and emotional blackmail.
Surrounding her are her sister, a Conservative minister so thoroughly wrapped up in herself that she sees anyone not thinking solely of her as being themselves egotistical; her father's very young widow, an emotionally draining and self-destructive alcoholic; and her boyfriend, who reacts to her breaking with him with pathetic stalking.
There are also the sister's hypocritically pious husband and her amorally ambitious parliamentary aide to round out the cast, and in the 1988 National Theatre production the play came across as a fairly heavy-handed attack on Thatcherism and amoral money-grubbing.
Freed from that immediate association. Guy Retallack's production now seems a more broadly sensitive inquiry into the possibilities of simple goodness in the modern world, and of the kinds of psychological defences and manipulations that have become so ingrained that we hardly notice ourselves using them.
What strikes you this time is the almost universal pattern of passive-aggressive exploitation everyone imposes on Isobel, declaring a vampirish neediness she cannot help but respond to, and then blaming her ('Why do you make me act like this?') for the resentment their dependency on her generates in them.
It is quite likely that you will recognise with embarrassment games you have played on others without realising it. And at the same time you will be led to question what it is about our world that makes unaffected niceness so threatening and unwelcome.
Driving the play and holding it on course is a quietly moving and totally convincing performance by Jenny Seagrove as Isobel. Given that her character is almost more symbol than person, she still manages to make us believe in this woman who accepts the burdens of others as her moral obligation and just tries to get on with life on those terms.
Seagrove underplays the role so subtly that she makes Belinda Lang as the sister and Liza Walker as the stepmother look like grossly overacting amateurs, the one uninterruptedly hysterical and strident and the other coming across as almost a parody of a petulant teenager.
Their totally external and over-the-top performances in these key roles are the production's biggest weakness, and much of the blame must lie on the director who didn't see how badly these cartoons clashed with Seagrove's naturalism. Only Peter Egan, giving a Michael Gambon performance as the slightly lost-in-his-own-thoughts brother-in-law, functions on the same level of underplayed realism.
It is very nice to discover that a play that seemed strictly of its
time has larger and more lasting resonances and that it can be the
vehicle for such a fine central performance. Just try not to be too
bothered by some of the bad acting that goes on around her.
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