This play by David Storey has its roots firmly in the 1960s - the heady days of social change and a trendy Britain that was largely obsessed with fashion and pop culture. First produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1969, there's not much sign of trendiness though in this play, as it's set in a mining community in the North of England, echoing the familiar setting of Storey's birthplace of Wakefield in Yorkshire.
It's Mr and Mrs Shaw's ruby wedding anniversary (that's 40 years if you don't know your anniversary titles!). Their sons, Colin, Andrew and Steven arrive to attend a family meal in a swanky local hotel. As Mr and Mrs Shaw greet their offspring, all seems well - at least on the surface. Mr Shaw (played by veteran actor Tim Healy) is a jovial and humorous man of 64 - with one more year in the hell of the mine until he can retire. Shaw works in a coal seam of just 13 inches - barely enough space to get his frame into, let alone wield a pick axe to cut out the coal. It's a dangerous occupation, as the bandage on Shaw's hand attests.
Mr Shaw dotes on his wife (played by Dearbhla Molloy) treating her like 'a goddess', as son Andrew says. And indeed, the devotion does seem over the top, as though Shaw is doing penance for some sin or other committed many moons ago.
Tensions soon begin to bubble to the surface within the family group, and one suspects that they've been simmering for a very long time. It's son Andrew - who's just left his job as a solicitor to become an 'artist' - who can't keep his feelings under control any more and begins the questioning about events in the family history, concerning in particular the birth and death of his elder brother, Jamie.
Les Brotherston's excellent set, though realistic and completely faithful to the period, is almost literally a part of the coal mine in which Mr Shaw and his workmates spend long and dangerous hours hacking the black gold that fuelled the industrial revolution and on which Britain's economic success was largely built. The stage has been stripped of all curtains and flats to form a cavernous black shaft in which the Shaw's 2 story terraced home has been set. Lumps of coal surround the set to emphasise the point.
Dearbhla Molloy portrays a woman stuck in an environment which we sense she feels is somewhat beneath her, and seems filled with regret. When we hear that she once attempted suicide, we're not entirely surprised. Molloy brings a certain aloofness to the role, but her accent was a little inconsistent for the part.
Orlando Bloom acquits himself well in this piece, though it's not really a very challenging role. Bloom has to be very quiet and to look morose most of the time - he does that satisfactorily, though I suspect the numerous Bloom fans in the audience expected rather more and probably left feeling a little cheated.
A much bigger and more important role is that of brother Andrew who is almost the exact oppositie of Bloom's withdrawn and edgy character. Excellently played with energetic exuberance and sarcastic wit by Paul Hilton, Andrew is a complex character whose troubles go back to the age of 5 when his older brother died and he was side-lined from the family for several weeks. It's a matter that festers in his mind, causing immense pain which is only partially cloaked by his outwardly confident persona.
With Tim Healy in fine form and in a part that could have been written specially for him, and a supportive cast with ample abilities to bring any play to life, you'd think that this piece would provide quite a theatrical feast. But it turns out to be less than totally satisfying. First, 'In Celebration' is looking rather dated. Its focus is a period and an industry that have long since vanished, and will seem odd to the younger generation, I suspect.
The play is also rather infuriating. It suggests there's a lot wrong with this family, without explaining the causes of the problems or why Andrew feels such rage, and more importantly why Steven is so withdrawn and morose. There were times when I wanted to get up and scream at Bloom 'for God sakes, tell us what's wrong!'. He didn't, choosing to remain silent. So, we were largely left guessing at what went wrong with this family.
One of the themes of the play is obviously education. Like many parents, the Shaws wanted their children to have a better life, and sought it through education. Their sons' experiences in dealing with lives outside the class and the community in which they were born suggest the Shaw's plans and intentions have been less than totally successful. But this theme gets rather confused with others, particularly events surrounding the Shaw's marriage and the death of their eldest son, which largely leave one feeling irritated and frustrated.
What the popular press had to say.....
MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "A richly satisfying evening." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Sluggish production, lacks the tension." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Orlando Bloom...first shot at stage-acting is a bit of a miss...Anna Mackmin's production needs...far greater charges of passion and engagement."BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Storey’s work isn’t just alive but has a kick capable of separating today’s audiences from their emotional teeth." JEREMY AUSTIN for THE STAGE says, "Witty, engaging social drama." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The kind of show that sends you into the night wondering whether to slit your wrists at once or wait until you get back home."SARAH HEMMING for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "There are large parts of it that are excessively slow and stodgy."
Production photos by Manuel Harlen