Other Desert Cities

  • Our critic's rating:
    Average press rating:
    Tuesday, March 25, 2014
    Review by:
    Mark Shenton

    Broadway is better known these days for sending us hit musicals than great plays, but here's an exception that proves the rule. First seen at off-Broadway's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in 2011 before transferring to Broadway later that year, where it was both a Tony nominee for Best Play and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, it now comes to London in a stunning new production that has conceived it entirely anew.

    Though it was memorable in New York for a cast led by Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach both off and on Broadway, with changes amongst the ensemble elsewhere between the two outings, here it comes to even more shattering life.

    That's partly about distance: both from the source of the play and its Palm Springs, California setting, but also from the stage itself. Suddenly a play that seemed quite inward looking, as it searches for the lost heart of a family (only to tear it out), acquires a wider resonance on a London stage; it speaks to us all, not just a liberal coterie who want to smile indulgently at right-wing Republican parents at war with each other and their adult kids as the try to maintain their dignity and reputations.

    But also the Old Vic has reinstalled its wonderful CQS in-the-round space that was first created for a production of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests in 2008, and brings the audience into much closer proximity to the stage.

    It's a thrilling space, and ideally suited to a thrilling play of constantly changing perspectives on family legacy, upbringing and consequences, in which long-buried secrets are finally exposed. It's an alternately tough and tender portrait of a family imploding in front of our eyes, as the adult daughter writer - who lives on the East Coast - brings her latest manuscript to the Palm Springs, California desert home of her parents for a Christmas gathering, and precipitates what one character calls a "thermonuclear family war."

    She's had a serious breakdown since writing her first book, but now her second is a memoir, not fiction, about her own family -- and in particular, her late elder brother Henry and the circumstances of his suicide. What follows is a shattering, surprising evening of truth-telling that it would be unfair to reveal the twists of.

    Suffice to say that Lindsay Posner's expert production is drenched in feeling and brought to piercing life by one of the finest acting ensembles currently on the London stage. I've never seen Sinéad Cusack better as the family matriarch, bringing an icy coldness and sense of self-preservation to her. Peter Egan is even more moving as the father, trying to protect his daughter but also his own family's reputation. Broadway actress Martha Plimpton is by turns ferocious and wounded as the daughter, and Daniel Lapaine superb as her brother. And the always wonderful Clare Higgins completes the ensemble as the mother's recovering drunk of a sister to provide some welcome comic relief.

    This is a fierce, wounding and wonderful night's theatre.


    "Lindsay Posner’s impeccably judged production, staged in the round and sleekly designed by Robert Innes-Hopkins, finds all the drama’s strengths with the help of a terrific cast..."
    Charles Spencer for The Telegraph

    "As Lindsay Posner's superlatively well-acted production richly demonstrates, this is not a play that allows your sympathies to settle comfortably – and not just because there's a devastating and not-wholly-plausible revelation in the second act that forces you to reassess much of what's gone before."
    Paul Taylor for The Independent

    "Martha Plimpton as the tense, unyielding Brooke has the advantage of being authentically American but, good as she is, she in no way overshadows Sinead Cusack, who excellently captures not just her mother's caustic grandeur but even her original Texan speech-rhythms..."
    Michael Billington for The Guardian

    "Cusack, full of icy rationality and aversion to ‘lefties whining’ and Plimpton, who cleverly deploys Brooke’s depressive tendencies as a get-out-of-jail free card, both give magnificent performances"
    Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    - Telegraph - Independent - Guardian

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