Sons of York, Finborough Theatre, London
Monday 08 September 2008
Not only do the cast and setting of James Graham's play seem familiar; the characters, too, know they've been around a while. When a guitar-playing student baulks at entering his Northern family's trucking business, his dad quips, "It's all very DH Lawrence, innit?"
This is a rare note of humour in a leaden, morose drama that takes place during the 1978-79 "winter of discontent" that lost Labour the next election. Matters within the Hull family are depressing, too – Gran has become immobile, incontinent and mute, yet her husband insists it is just a temporary setback. Their son and daughter-in-law, Jim and Brenda, are sympathetic but wound up tight. Their grandson is constantly whingeing. The pipes dry up, the electricity goes. Gran gets worse. Christmas dinner looks like being a less than happy occasion.
If the subject is well-worn, the dialogue is drawn from the great bank of Northern clichés. "What have you got to be angry about?" grandpa reproves his surly grandson. "You're not on rations." .Later, his father agrees, telling him, "Shut yer cakehole." Grandpa expresses his admiration for Tommy Cooper. The lad says, "I prefer Kenny Everett." The grandson strums his guitar and sings Patti Smith's "Elegy", and soon grandpa pronounces an elegy for his class: "Not just the Tories, but that bloody woman!"
Although I think novelty is greatly overrated, there does seem something wrong with a new play that could have been written during the period it portrays. Sons of York takes no notice of other dramatists' work in this area, as we are reminded by the current sparkling revivals of Peter Nichols's Born in the Gardens and Alan Bennett's Enjoy. Graham's one departure from plodding realism is a device so popular in plays of a few decades ago that it makes his play seem even more old-fashioned – grandma periodically throws aside her blanket to reveal a cocktail dress, springs up and sings a popular song of her youth.
The cast of Kate Wasserberg's production, however, is on an entirely different level from the play. Barry Aird (Jim), Kazia Pelka (Brenda) and Steven Webb (grandson) all act with impeccable integrity and sensitivity, and Colette Kelly, as grandma, performs her songs with a sweetness and modesty that contrast painfully with her present plight. Best of all is William Maxwell, not only as the strong yet helpless grandfather, but as Kelly's partner in a charmingly foolish old song about the power of love.
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