THEATRE / Can life begin at forty-two?: Paul Taylor reviews Sharman Macdonald's new play Shades at the Albery

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The Independent Culture
THE GRANDMOTHER figures in the plays of Sharman Macdonald tend to take a poor view of the Almighty and His practical jokes on ageing women. The granny in her last play, All Things Nice, thought Him a bit of a misogynist, taking away a woman's face and figure and leaving only a rampant desire for anything in trousers. Violet, the grandmother in her new play Shades, feels much the same way. God does the decent thing, she reckons, by killing off the menfolk first; the only snag is that, deprived of their looks beforehand, women aren't in an ideal position to enjoy their new-found freedom.

It is not the most tactful sentiment to be airing under the circumstances, for Violet has just come to look after her 10-year-old grandson, while her widowed daughter Pearl (Pauline Collins) goes out to a dinner dance with a man she thinks might ask her to marry him. When Pearl remonstrates that she is only 42, and her life isn't over yet, her mother has the perfect put-down. 'Is that all you are?' she asks wonderingly.

Set in 1950s Glasgow, the play takes us through a single evening, a turning-point in Pearl's life. It begins and ends with her peering out through the tall, lace-curtained windows of her bedroom. The first time, it is as a mischievous peeping Tom, embarrassing her son with a report of the romantic exploits of the couple opposite, her broad-minded pleasure in their pleasure not quite concealing her own loneliness. The second time, as she prepares to go to bed, after an evening which has confirmed her in her widowhood and revealed the first signs of a growing-away in her son, it is to let in air.

Between these moments, Shades emerges as a muted, funny-sad chamber piece. Its haunting minor-key mood is beautifully brought out in Simon Callow's excellent production, with the slinky sax riffs of its incidental music and its poetic use of the revolve to give us different perspectives on Pearl's boudoir.

The title refers not just to the discreet light-fittings favoured by the ageing heroine, but to the ghost of her husband (who dropped dead at 39) and to the memories of the love and happiness which prevents her, however much she may want to, from letting go of the past. It doesn't help that she is constantly being pestered to dredge up stories from that period; not just by her son, but by Callum (James Cosmo), the possible future husband, who resents having to compete with his spectral predecessor.

If she is forced to talk about this figure, Callum thinks, he will begin to lose his obstructing sacredness. As they tarry in the gilded party room, a pair of battered midlifers whose age is underlined by the couple of rock'n'rollers we see dancing outside the club opposite, he insists she play the painful game of reminiscence. Ironically, it is Callum who is put off the idea of matrimony by what she reveals.

What makes Pauline Collins's superb performance so moving is that she shows how unsoured by experience Pearl remains. And she doesn't obscure the fact that, at times, this can seem self-indulgent rather than heroic. In the long first scene, she and Matthew Steer, who plays her son, create a powerful atmosphere of closeted, over-dependent closeness, with Steer expertly piling on the emotional blackmail of an insecure child, and Collins, likeably intimate with him, but also burdening him with perceptions and confidences he is too young to support.

The piece is fragile, but as well constructed as a Katherine Mansfield short story. If it feels a little insubstantial at the time, it makes a deep, lasting impression.

Continues at the Albery Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (Box office: 071-867 1115).

(Photograph omitted)