This West End revival of Peter Nichols’ play received favourable notices from most of the popular press when it opened at the New Ambassadors Theatre a couple of months ago. Now the play has transferred to the Comedy Theatre for a limited 6 week run with comedian Eddie Izzard replacing Clive Owen as Bri.
I missed the New Ambassadors run so I cannot compare performances, but what I can say is that this is a touching and tragic drama that courageously uses humour to convey its message.
When the play premiered in 1967, it had problems getting past the censors as it was thought the play would offend parents of handicapped children. But after a few lines were cut from the play it was allowed to be performed and it received rave reviews. I suppose in those days this play would have been shocking, but today the shock value has gone. We are now used to all kinds of sensitive subjects being performed.
The drama concerns Bri and Sheila, and their severely mentally handicapped child, Joe, aged 10. The parents invent conversations and personality traits for the child, even though she is totally unable to communicate or respond. After 10 years the strain is beginning to take its toll with both parents on the verge of cracking. Sheila escapes by joining an amateur dramatics class, but Bri is beginning to give up and seeks more direct ways to solve their ‘problem’!
The strength of this tragic drama is that it is a comedy! Some may consider this ‘offensive’, considering its subject, but actually humour is often the best way one can deal with sensitive subjects. The play cleverly reveals the trauma parents in such a situation go through and how they deal with it, or not as the case may be.
The play is mainly a set of monologues intertwined with conventional dialogue in which the actors often talk directly to the audience. This ingeniously allows the characters to reveal many of their hidden thoughts and helps keep this two and half hour drama moving.
Eddie Izzard is superb as ‘Bri’. Having seen Izzard in stand-up, many of his traits show in his performance during the many comic scenes, but he also shows his acting ability within the emotional and serious scenes. However, it is Victoria Hamilton who stands out. Her undying love for her daughter is touching and utterly convincing. You certainly feel her pain, desperation and love for her mentally handicapped child. It is a heartbreaking performance, but also an uplifting one. She alone keeps faith in Joe even when all the evidence is that she will always remain unresponsive. John Warnaby as Freddie, a well meaning but brainless friend, and Robin Weaver as his horrid wife Pam, are competent. And Prunella Scales is credible as Bri’s bitter and moaning mother.
The sense of tragedy and betrayal at the end leaves one wondering whose death is referred to in the title. Is it Bri who struggles to cope and no longer has a ‘life’? Is it Sheila who continues to have hope against all the odds that her daughter will one day communicate with her, or is it Joe herself who is not only oblivious to her own sad plight but also to the despair that is happening around her?
This production has again received good notices from the popular press.... PATRICK MARMION for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The main reason Laurence Boswell's production works so well is because Victoria Hamilton sustains its emotional pulse. Not only does she create the space for Izzard and others to ham things up, she also bears the the play's sentimental moral alone. " CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This is a terrific production of an unmistakably great play." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Eddie Izzard has taken over from Clive Owen .....in the transfer of Peter Nichols's extraordinary play from the Ambassadors; and the result is fascinating. Owen is the more experienced actor, but Izzard supplies the faintly surreal comedy and vaudevillian timing sorely missing on the original first night."
Don’t miss this outstanding black comedy!
Links to full reviews from newspapers...