The Young Vic appears to be on a roll right now - the recent innovative renovation of their theatrical home seems to have been matched with renewed vigour and vision in the programming department. I particularly liked their recent version of 'Vernon God Little', but even that is nudged upstage with this new offering 'Member of the Wedding'. It's one of the best plays I've seen for some time, not only because it's extremely well written with brilliantly drawn characters, but also because it has great performances.
Almost from the start, even though it's never telegraphed or signposted, you just know that this play isn't going to end happily ever after. And it doesn't. But in spite of the sadness in the ending, this is a hugely enjoyable play by any standard. Written as a novella by American writer Carson McCullers in 1946, she subsequently turned it into a play which was first produced in 1950. Apparently, Arthur Miller once described McCullers as a 'minor author' - perhaps he didn't have his specs on when he was reading her work!
It's the word 'Member' in the title which is the crucially important factor in this rights of passage play. Frankie is a 12 year-old adolescent girl who doesn't feel she belongs to anyone or anything. She's even been turned down by her friends for election to their club. Frankie spends most of her time with black housekeeper-cum-cook and surrogate mother Berenice and her six year-old cousin John Henry. Berenice has a cynical view of the world, but has come to accept her status in the racially divided American South. However, her foster brother is plagued with anger about their social status and finds a fleeting refuge in smoking 'reefers'.
Rejected and struggling with a flood of hormones which have awoken desires she doesn't quite understand, or at least can't admit to, Frankie is bereft. But when her brother brings home his bride-to-be and announces his imminent marriage, Frankie seizes on an opportunity to belong, and to Berenice's incredulity makes childishly ridiculous plans to go with them when they get hitched.
Much of the play focuses on the relationship between Frankie, Berenice and John Henry. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is mesmerising as Frankie Addams. Her characterisation of youthful exuberance combined with tantrums and childish over-reaction, provides the focal point of the play. It's an emotionally draining and physically exhausting performance, but it's stunningly realistic in almost every respect. Spencer-Longhurst maintains the frantic pace almost for the full duration of the play, making a last-minute, but highly convincing transition when adulthood eventually begins to dawn at the end of the play.
Portia plays housekeeper Berenice largely with motherly and humorous good nature, tinged with a hefty does of cynicism. Though she accepts and is able to cope with her station in life (as defined for her by others) she's not averse to having a good time and making the most of what meagre enjoyment life has to offer.
A young actor in the making – Theo Stevenson – tackles the role of John Henry with adult-like confidence and aplomb. In fact, he gets most of the laughs in the piece – largely because of the way he mimics his elders and the odd assortment of clothes he wears. But this is no cameo role. Theo Stevenson is on-stage for almost the duration of the play and has to memerise a considerable number of lines and actions. Though there were odd occasions when I couldn't quite hear everything he was saying, it was a gem of a performance, reinforcing the dictum 'never work with children and animals' – they steal the show!
Matthew Dunster's highly meticulous direction is little short of a triumph. Managing one young child actor is difficult enough, but to have to direct a trio of them (different actors play the role in turn) for a very substantial role is mind-boggling. But Dunster's ability isn't limited to working with children. The production has a definitive and delicate vision encompassing all elements, including some haunting jazz music, a staggeringly realistic storm and exceptional ensemble playing too.
Carson McCullers wrote the story after tragedy had already struck her own life. She suffered several strokes early in her life, and wrote the play with a failed marriage behind her (though she remarried her former husband some years later).
I've seen 'Member of the Wedding' described as 'beautiful' and I can see what was meant. However, I think I'd prefer to say that it has charm and warmth, but with some unsettling and disturbing undercurrents. Though we understand the torment of the feelings which Frankie experiences in the fizz of adolescence, we realise these are transient when compared to the suffering of housekeeper Berenice. And it's fitting that we should be left with Portia's highly-charged and emotional portrayal at the end of the play - reminding us that racism and its unsavoury effects are still never far away.