Ecstasy, Hampstead Theatre, London
Thursday 17 March 2011
Mike Leigh has broken the habit of a lifetime and returned to direct one of his stage plays for the second time. You can see why he has been reluctant hitherto. Given the improvisatory techniques and the exhaustive research into character that goes into the creation of a Mike Leigh piece, the original actors might be said to "own" the material in a deeper sense than is normally meant by the term. How could you hope to re-create in rehearsal that intimate sense of mutual discovery with actors coming to the finished product cold?
Well, the first thing to say of Leigh's very moving and immaculately directed revival of his 1979 play, Ecstasy, is that the superlative cast take complete authoritative possession of its world. Loneliness and blighted hope seem to waft like a dismal whiff of damp from the cramped Kilburn bedsit that is evoked in all its forlorn frowstiness by Alison Chitty's excellent design. Set just after the Winter of Discontent but flecked with premonitions of the Thatcherite revolution to come, the piece takes its considered time in telling a simple, but ultimately devastating story.
Jean, a quietly alcoholic garage attendant, gets into a fight with the married thug with whom she is having a joyless affair. His wife storms in and, as the fur flies, Jean's bed gets broken. After the drowning of sorrows in a local pub, Jean returns to the bedsit with three old pals – Dawn (Sinead Matthews), her best friend and fellow Brummie; Dawn's feckless Irish husband, Mick (Allen Leech) and Len (Craig Parkinson), a building-site labourer who has returned to London after a failed marriage. The quartet reminisce about their tearaway youth and try to hide insecurities behind squiffy bravado; they argue about the contribution of "Pakis" to English culture; they sing Irish rebel songs and Elvis numbers; and in a lovely touch, the decent, sensitive, if slightly nerdy, Len endeavours to mask his sexual shyness by intoning a thumpingly bawdy Lincolnshire folk song.
Jean brightens intermittently but, as Siâ* Brooke's surely award-winning performance hauntingly intimates, she's now almost numbed beyond reach and she knows it. Brooke highlights how Jean's reactions have become a sort of heartbreaking autopilot of self-denying agreement with her interlocutors. Indeed, there's hardly any self left to deny. At the start, she and Daniel Coonan's excellent Roy are discovered naked in disconsolate post-coital mood. In a later scene of simmering violence and tense sexual exploitation, Roy returns and shows his impatience by jabbing at her with the phrase "You all right?" (code for "Isn't it time you opened those legs?"). This disgusting travesty of concern is partly redeemed when the phrase and the opening stage picture are echoed at the end. Foetal on her now broken bed, Jean is left alone with Len to whom she has just revealed the desolate truth of a life of despair, casual affairs, and abortions. As he chastely kisses her goodnight prior to sleeping in the chair, Len asks "You all right?" and the little phrase blossoms with true solicitude and honest intent. And it's music to the ears.
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