curtain call

The Week on Stage: From The Clinic to Handbagged

A guide to the week’s theatre

Sunday 18 September 2022 06:30 BST
‘The Clinic’, ‘Handbagged’, and ‘The Snail House’
‘The Clinic’, ‘Handbagged’, and ‘The Snail House’ (Marc Brenner/Tristram Kenton/Manuel Harlan)

It’s serendipitous that a playful tribute to Queen Elizabeth II has found its way back to the stage this week. We reviewed Moira Buffini’s 2013 comedy Handbagged, along with new dramas from Richard Eyre and Dipo Baruwa-Etti.

Join us next week when we’ll be seeing a new set of shows, including The Crucible at the National Theatre.

The Clinic – Almeida Theatre ★★★☆☆

What to do, as a junior doctor, when the widow of your favourite patient begs you to help her end her life? Ore (Gloria Obianyo) is burdened with this extraordinary request in Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s expansive family drama, The Clinic. Obviously, it’s against all the rules of the job. Still, Ore understands that grief, plus the weight of growing racial tensions in the UK and the struggle of rising living costs, can make being alive feel extremely painful. When she shares her quandary with her mother, Tiwa (Donna Berlin), she’s surprised when Tiwa takes the matter into her own hands. She invites the widow, Wunmi (a magnetic Toyin Ayedun-Alase) and her infant son to stay in her home for a few weeks in order to help her find something to live for. But as Wunmi becomes a part of the household, cracks in the family begin to deepen, as previously suppressed traumas come to light.

Donna Berlin and Toyin Ayedun-Alase in ‘The Clinic'
Donna Berlin and Toyin Ayedun-Alase in ‘The Clinic' (Marc Brenner)

In many ways, this is an admirable exploration of the identity markers that fight for supremacy in many people’s minds: politics, race, nationality, heritage, class. And it’s impressively acted, with arguments feeling genuinely tense, and often brutal. At the start, it’s a gripping watch, with brilliant chemistry between the six-person cast. But while its themes are strong, The Clinic’s storyline is a puzzle that never gets completely solved. A lot of the intrigue comes in trying to figure out where on earth it’s going, without any satisfying pay-off. The play tries to tackle so much, teasing so many topics (protesting rights, racism in healthcare and infidelity are but a few examples), but none take the lead; you’re left feeling dizzy. Nicole Vassell

The Snail House – Hampstead Theatre ★☆☆☆☆

Richard Eyre ran the National Theatre for a decade. You’d think, with such experience, he’d know how to write a good play. But his debut at the age of 79 shows that a legendary theatre director does not, necessarily, a great playwright make. Instead, this drama about a family reunion (a Hampstead Theatre staple) feels disparate and undercooked, with Eyre’s clichéd script and sluggish direction leaving his actors flailing.

The family in question are the Marriots. The occasion is two-fold: it’s patriarch Neil’s (Vincent Franklin) birthday, and he’s being knighted for his services as a paediatrician during the pandemic. His Extinction Rebellion-supporting teenage daughter Sarah (Grace Hogg-Robinson) and spad son Hugo (Patrick Walshe McBride) are constantly at odds with their father and one another, while his wife Val (Eva Pope) is the steadfast glue trying to hold them all together.

Patrick Walshe McBride and Grace Hogg-Robinson in ‘The Snail House'
Patrick Walshe McBride and Grace Hogg-Robinson in ‘The Snail House' (Manuel Harlan)

Yet it’s not the family, but minimum wage catering staffers Wynona and Habeeb (Megan McDonnell and Raphel Famotibe) that open the play. They dip in and out of the scenes, both unrealistic and underwritten (Habeeb in particular). What are they there for? Not-that-comic comic relief? A sign of the class divide? It’s never really clear. Amanda Bright’s Florence feels more integrated into the plot, yet her story lacks the depth it deserves.

You can’t say much better for the central characters either. Neil’s children are the broadest of stereotypes, from prematurely Tory Hugo’s bow tie and comments of “coronavirus was a necessary cull” to wannabe socialist Sarah’s blue dip-dyed hair circa 2007. Their dialogue feels stilted and inconsistent – Sarah, for example, only uses the word “like” a handful of times, yet it’s always followed by a comment of: “Could you possibly, like, stop saying ‘like’?” In moments like these, the actors don’t stand a chance and find themselves stuck in a permanent state of raised voices and angry arm-crossing.

With so much resentment at the heart of The Snail House, its conclusion feels weirdly twee. Topics such as coronavirus, mental health, racism in the legal system and climate activism have been less tackled than gingerly prodded to make a broad statement about our “divided nation”. For a play that makes so much noise, it manages to say nothing at all. Isobel Lewis

Handbagged – Kiln Theatre ★★★★☆

It’s a quirk of fate that this revival of Moira Buffini’s Handbagged should coincide with the death of the Queen. First staged at this theatre (then the Tricycle) in 2013, it mischievously imagines the meetings between Queen Elizabeth II and her eighth prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Director Indhu Rubasingham introduces the show with a minute’s silence for the late monarch – but if you go to see it, it’s the ghost of Thatcher you’ll be haunted by. Kate Fahy puts in a performance of the Iron Lady that’s so uncanny in voice, physicality and rigid self-congratulation, that it feels like an apparition.

Playwrights have a fascination with these meetings – Peter Morgan’s The Audience trotted through the whole line-up of PMs up to Cameron. Perhaps it’s their confidentiality that makes them so irresistible; we can only imagine what was said with the knowledge we possess of their personalities. Buffini wants to explore the frequently reported tensions (their views on South African apartheid), the potential common ground (they both lost loved ones in IRA bomb attacks) and the question of who, of the pair, really held the power.

The cast of ‘Handbagged'
The cast of ‘Handbagged' (Tristram Kenton)

It’s inventively staged, with a young and old version of both women, jostling to describe the “correct” version of events. “No, we never said that,” is a frequent cry. Two male actors play multiple roles, from Denis Thatcher to Neil Kinnock, and this fast-and-loose flexibility is knowingly referred to throughout the play. Occasionally it feels too much like a history lesson, but the writing is self-aware and sprightly, full of great lines (“whatever we say must stay between these three walls”), and Rubasingham’s production has flair and elan. Serendipitously, this affectionate, playful tribute to the Queen has returned at just the right moment. Jessie Thompson

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