South London in the 1960s is the setting for this revival of Bill Macilwraith’s ‘The Anniversary’, first aired in 1966.
It’s Mum’s wedding anniversary, and despite the fact that Dad has been dead for some years, her 3 sons are obliged to gather for the annual celebration - a restaurant meal with prawn cocktail for starters, followed by ‘party pieces’ from the brothers and a bonfire back at the family home afterwards.
Two of the sons have something important to tell Mum. Terry, the brooding middle son, wants to leave the family building business to immigrate to Canada with his wife, Karen, and their 5 children. And the youngest offspring, Tom, wants to marry his latest girlfriend, Shirley. The sons’ dilemma is how and when to convey their news – that is, if they can summon the nerve to tell her at all. Because Mum (brilliantly played by Sheila Hancock), is the Matriarch from Hell! Evil, wicked, malevolent and fanatically possessive, this one-eyed widow is used to getting her way by any means that delivers the desired outcome and preserves her world in tact with her family securely (and slavishly) tied to her apron strings.
In the course of the action that follows, Mum deploys every weapon in her considerable and lethal verbal armoury as she humiliates, bullies, badgers, bribes, cajoles and threatens her sons in an onslaught which is not only extremely funny but also makes the audience cringe. It’s a display of mental torture on an overpowering scale as Mum moves unswervingly from one kind of verbal abuse to another in order to thwart her sons. But there are some brilliant one-liners directed at the other members of the party, most notably when Mum asks Shirley to move to another seat because, she says, “I find BO offensive”.
However, Mum doesn’t have it all her own way – the other women are more than willing to take up the gauntlet. Shrill-voiced newcomer Shirley is ready to challenge Mum’s domination of her fiancé with a brand of her own, but her efforts at putting Mum in her place are received as a mere irritation rather than a serious threat to the matriarch. However, Terry’s wife Karen (Rosie Cavaliero), proves a worthier adversary not only in verbal banter but also in using Mum’s tactic of homing-in on the ‘weak spot’.
Robin Don’s set lovingly recreates a 60s family home complete with over-sized radiogram, pineapple ice-box, musical cocktail bar, grotesque flock wallpaper, and the ever-present icon of 60s kitsch: the picture of the oriental woman with the green face (the name of which escapes me).
Sheila Hancock obviously knows this play well – she was in the original 1966 production in the West End, and also played the role of Karen in the 1968 film starring Bette Davis. And having moved into the lead for this production, Hancock gives free-reign to her formidable comedic talents. It’s a carefully crafted and well-observed portrayal – more earthy and unashamed than Davis’s film version, which makes it all the more brutal.
Although Hancock is the dominating figure on the stage, this is no ‘one-woman’ show - a highly talented, and tightly knit cast employ careful timing and well-defined characterization to make this a gloriously enjoyable, if not unmissable, play.
[PS: Ben McVeigh kindly wrote on the 8th March 2005 to tell me that the picture I refer to above is called 'The Chinese Girl' by Vladimir Tretchikoff and used to be sold at better Boots shops. Many thanks, Ben.]
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STRANDARD says, "A selection box of witty insults and put-downs.." BRIAN LOGAN for THE GUARDIAN says, "Watching The Anniversary is like watching a tag-wrestling bout, in which increasingly unlikely characters deploy ever more improbable manoeuvres to manipulate and abuse one another." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A comedy at once outrageously funny and enjoyably creepy, which finds Sheila Hancock having the time of her life as she delivers a glitteringly, malevolent star performance..... Popular theatre at its best." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "An excuse for Hancock to be unstoppably, hilariously, sublimely frightful."