Madani Younis, the new artistic director of the Bush Theatre, inaugurates his regime with Lee Mattinson's Chalet Lines, a bleakly comic play that fails to shed much fresh light on the problem of being trapped in inherited patterns of family behaviour. This plight is exemplified by four generations of women in the Walker family from Newcastle. Set over 50 years in the same scuzzy chalet at the Skegness Butlins, the play tracks the recurring cycles of loveless marriage to the wrong husband and of viciously invidious favouring of one daughter over another that are the emotional heirlooms, so to speak, of this clan.
Leslie Travers' set certainly makes a bold statement. The chalet looks as though it has been blown apart by an explosion. The walls, studded with coloured lightbulbs, stretch out skewwhiff like the wings of pranged biplane. But the design is far too overbearing. It means the five fine actresses in Younis's effortful production have to struggle up steeply inclined floors, which sometimes throws their timing. It occasionally creates misleading stage pictures of the power relations between the characters. And, above all, it arouses false expectations about a play that turns out be much more conventional than its "look". We follow the Walker women through three hideously souring celebrations, presented out of chronological sequence. Given Mattinson's ear for the blastingly acidic put-down, listening to these raucous, rancorous reunions is like drinking cheap cava and pomagne (liberally swigged here from plastic pint cups) after they have turned to vinegar.
The piece begins and ends with Nana Barbara's 70th-birthday party in 2010, rewinding in between through a hen night in 1996 (the drinking straws are shocking-pink penises, the sweets are cock-chocs) to the marriage in 1961, chillingly forced by her Catholic mother on the pregnant 21-year-old Barbara, which instigated the misery. In one extremely effective touch, the embittered elderly Barbara (excellent Gillian Hanna) puts on her old wedding dress and metamorphoses her desperate younger self in a scene that also sees an impressive Monica Dolan switch from playing Barabra's furiously frustrated, less-favoured daughter to portraying the lethally implacable 1960s matriarch. By the conclusion, the youngest wave of daughters (nicely played by Laura Elphinstone and Robyn Addison) have rejected the cards they were dealt. Before that, though, the play feels dependent on a somewhat rigged and over-neat determinism and flawed emotional logic.
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