Decades ago, and most unjustly, Ena Lamont Stewart's reputation was left to fade on the dusty shelf of theatre history.
A hospital receptionist-turned-pioneering playwright, she wrote her pièce de résistance, Men Should Weep, in the space of two days in 1947. Depicting a Glaswegian slum community with, at its core, resilient women struggling through the 1930s Great Depression, its original production was an instant hit, transferring to London. Thereafter, she was largely forgotten, and ended her working life a librarian.
But then, in 2000, the National Theatre's millennium poll listed Men Should Weep among its "Top 100" pivotal plays of the 20th century. Ena Lamont Stewart, though, was unable to enjoy the renewed interest: she spent her last years in a nursing home, quietly singing hymns to herself, her memory gone. Now the NT's tender, as well as humorous revival – with Sharon Small as the sorely tried wife and mother Maggie Morrison – proves her play has stood the test of time.
Josie Rourke's staging manages to combine intimacy with a startlingly epic set (by Bunny Christie). Three looming storeys of a tenement fill the Lyttelton's proscenium arch. So you survey, at close quarters, not only the Morrisons' but also their neighbours' flats. This is bleakness on a grand scale, with soiled grey walls and ramshackle furniture, a gloomy stairwell yet some twinkling warmth too, from glowing light bulbs.
Blasts of jazz enliven Rourke's scene changes. That's a bold choice, and a nod to the offstage boozy dance halls which – to Maggie and her reformed husband John's dismay – are luring their eldest offspring, Alec and Jenny, into dissolution. This revival resonates for a contemporary audience in other ways, too. It is concerned, after all, with the hardships endured in a protracted financial slump, as the chronically skint endure unemployment and cramped, overcrowded homes.
The writing, and Rourke's ensemble, are not without weak links. Some characters waver between realism and caricature. Morven Christie's Isa, Alec's sluttish wife, is a remorseless bad egg. Pierce Reid, as Alec, needs to be a more convincingly desperate drunken delinquent.
Yet the realism is elsewhere subtly shaded. Anne Downie is pitifully funny as Alec's grumbling and taunted gran (a precursor of Martin McDonagh's Beauty Queen of Leenane), while Small and Robert Cavanagh's John create a touching portrait of a loving marriage – severely strained yet enduring through thick and thin.
The Edwardian mansion in JB Priestley's satirical comedy, When We Are Married, is suffocatingly plush. Christopher Luscombe's West End production boasts a spectacular drawing-room, all tassled lampshades, swagged velvet and cut-glass decanters. The cast is also packed with droll veteran luminaries, including Maureen Lipman and Roy Hudd.
The puffed-up owner of this bourgeois pile is David Horovitch's Alderman Helliwell, a Yorkshire businessman and small-town grandee who – having persuaded his whiskery cronies to back him – sanctimoniously sacks the new chapel organist. Young Gerald stands accused of being a suave ladies' man from down south.
Peter Sandys-Clarke's smirking Gerald then informs his supposedly respectable elders that they and their so-called wives have been living in sin for 25 years. They were united in matrimony by an unqualified minister.
The ensuing hoo-ha mostly seems passé, and Priestley – who churned out plays – didn't even bother with this one to paper over gaping holes in its mildly farcical plot. There's some creaky old acting too. Panto dames pale by comparison with Rosemary Ashe's Lottie, an ageing slapper who turns up claiming to know the gentlemen, with a screech like a parrot and make-up to match.
That said, the Helliwells' cheeky servants are gleefully entertaining, giving their snooty employers a dressing-down. Hudd is likeably jovial, if a little shaky on his lines, playing the soused photographer from the local paper. Lipman has meticulously timed comic moments as bossy Mrs Soppitt, startled when her meek spouse, Sam Kelly's Herbert, turns ballsy. He is splendid, and so is Michelle Dotrice as Mrs Parker, her muted disaffection becoming hilariously liberated.
The middle-aged, beer-swilling, blue-collar workers in Brett Neveu's new American drama Red Bud are initially hilarious, then horribly vicious. They're gathering at a campsite for a rowdy motorcross championship which they've ritualistically attended for years. Presumably, they're still hoping to relive the wild and free highs of their youth. The trouble is this gang's drinking games rapidly become a bore, and tempers are so frayed from the start that you are merely waiting for the inevitable outbreak of psychotic violence, which is not properly explained – even with a provocative, bikini-wearing teenage floozy thrown into the mix. Ooh, it's primal and savage around the campfire.
This playwright does have an ear for slating banter, but then he lobs in a dreadfully overwritten, pseudo-poetic suicide speech. Jo McInnes' production is brilliantly staged, with the audience wandering in over scraggy grass, past a rusty pickup truck. Her cast are terrific as well, including Peter McDonald as the seething, hatchet-jawed Greg; Lisa Palfrey as his fed-up then scared pregnant wife; and the newcomer, Isabel Ellison, remarkably assured as the teenager, Jana. But Red Bud fizzles out, nonetheless.
'Men Should Weep' (020-7452 3000) to 9 Jan; 'When We Are Married' (0844-412 4661) to 26 Feb; 'Red Bud'(020-7565 5000) to 13 Nov
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