Felicity Kendal is wonderfully witty and moving as Esme, the actressy thespian in David Hare's mid-Nineties play, Amy's View. We track her life from 1979, when she's still a biggish name on Shaftesbury Avenue, to 1995 when, after some severe knocks, she is just beginning a comeback.
The piece was premiered at the National with Judi Dench, and Richard Eyre directing. This is an absorbing, funny and touching revival by Peter Hall, which proves both that it is a terrific vehicle for an actress and that we are perhaps freer now to respond to this flawed play's moments of emotional depth.
In 1995, when Amy's View opened, Hare was at the zenith of his reputation as a "state of the nation" dramatist, after his trilogy, Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War. There's a lot of state-of-the-nation commentary in this play, with its portrait of an England where the country is turning to endless suburb, and where the natives preserve increasingly fake rural traditions rather than catch up with social change and turn it to good ends. The play argues that there is, in English life, the legitimate theatre (a force for good) and a less reputable taste for theatrical flummery in public and corporate life.
The play's faults remain glaring. Esme's values clash clankingly with those of her television arts journalist son-in-law (Ryan Kiggell) in a tinny-sounding contest between highly simplified views of cultural criticism and of theatre. Esme's daughter Amy (Jenna Russell) accuses her mother of refusing to see the sympathetic side of her husband. Hare, too, can't bring himself to find a redeeming feature in the journalist.
Kendal beautifully encompasses manipulative mischief, motherliness, spiritedly witty defiance and everything from the actressy flounce to the stillness of stoical wisdom. The play's strength now seems to be its study of the humanising effects of loss.
Esme loses her husband, her daughter, her mother-in-law to senility, and all her money to the Lloyd's crash, and she disengages herself from the adoring attentions of the man (Gawn Grainger, excellent) who loves her but gave her risky financial advice. She emerges stripped back but stronger - a recluse, but one who has re-dedicated herself to the art of theatre.
To 17 March (08708 901 104)
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