The Homecoming, Almeida Theatre, London <br/>The Death of Margaret Thatcher, Courtyard Theatre, London

To the point of no return

Paul Taylor
Tuesday 12 February 2008 01:00

The programme for Michael Attenborough's bitterly funny, powerful revival of The Homecoming includes a fan note from Noël Coward. His admiration for the Pinter manner makes sense. A line from his Shadow Play, "a lot of small talk with other thoughts going on behind", evokes the dialogue in both dramatists' work.

One wonders, though, what Coward made of The Homecoming. It's as easy to imagine the Master working on an oil rig as existing in the play's all-male household, presided over by Max, a retired North London butcher (who's portrayed here with wonderfully ferocious bile by Kenneth Cranham). The long absence of a woman's touch in this bleak home wafts across the footlights like the smell of old semen and dirty socks.

The home-comer is Teddy (Neil Dudgeon), a professor of philosophy who arrives on a surprise visit with his wife. The play asks us to believe that, rather than return to her sons and campus life, this woman prefers to rule the roost over her in-laws, going on the game in Greek Street and then serving their repulsive needs back home.

The twist in Attenborough's production is that she is played by a beautiful black actress, Jenny Jules, who portrays her with a compellingly self-amused mischievousness. At a time when a family like this might have had a "No blacks or Irish" notice in their window, you end up having to regard the casting as colour-blind to account for their eventual submission.

Attenborough valuably highlights the sterile feel of the marriage and the sense that she'll call all the shots in her new life. But in what sense would that life not be degrading? The play has violently funny riffs, but its hold is horrible. It's like a myth crossed with a pathetic male-porn fantasy.

Most of us can remember where they were when Margaret Thatcher resigned. But how will you feel when you hear the news of her eventual demise? The psychological impact of this is the subject of a new play by Tom Green, whose title has ensured it plenty of frothing free publicity in the right-wing press.

The real trouble, though, with this 70-minute play is not the topic, which is one of legitimate interest, but the lightweight treatment. The former prime minister's coffin lies in the middle of the stage in June Abbott's sharp, well-paced and spryly acted production. Around it, Green weaves three separate story strands – none of which truly tackles Thatcher's legacy or adequately explores the ways in which her death may alter perceptions about her.

Replete with dream sequences, there's a succession of scenes in which a female therapist and a thirtysomething patient (Alan Freestone) are trying to work through his irrational grief. But the unearthed cause of his pain turns out to be textbook stuff.

Green speculates that, as Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron declines to give Thatcher a state funeral because of the divisiveness of the legacy. The play imagines 100,000 people gathering behind a Sheffield man who decides to walk to London to spit on her grave. But it's typical of Green's approach that the political implications of this are drowned out by the Drop the Dead Donkey-style comedy of the news room in which the chauvinist, anti-Thatcher producer proceeds brutally to tease, seduce and humiliate a young female newsreader, whose career could rocket if she makes a success of this assignment. What, though, does any of this internecine, poor behaviour tell us about Margaret Thatcher?

Green's writing often has an insidious, blackly comic power – as in the creation of the creepy funeral director, who once wrote to Thatcher advocating the return of the death penalty for the Yorkshire Ripper – and in the best bits of this piece, he's successful in showing how Thatcher has entered the collective nervous system. But by focusing so flimsily on the personal, the worst sections trivialise the political.

'The Homecoming' to 22 March (020-7359 4404); 'Death of Margaret Thatcher' to 2 March (0870 163 0717)

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