'The House of Shades' review — a compelling intergenerational drama loses its way

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Death shadows every moment of The House of Shades, the ambitious new play by Beth Steel that promises an intergenerational epic of O’Neill-like proportions only to seriously lose its way.

A top-flight cast can’t make something coherent of writing that wants to conjoin the personal and the political, the realistic and the fantastical, but as often as not settles for bald-faced pronouncements along the lines of “we’re all living through change; it isn’t easy.” Or, later, “we are all moving toward death, speeding into the black.” The play, rich and ripe with potential, hasn’t at least at present found a way to land.

The family surname, Webster, tips a presumably deliberate nod to John Webster, the Jacobean playwright who addressed themes of incest that Steel picks up in the final portion of a sprawling three-hour drama. There’s no denying the material in place for a compelling account across the decades of a Nottinghamshire clan who are proffered an unusually frequent acquaintanceship with mortality.

But just when you’re alighting on a character – the wonderful Anne-Marie Duff as the feisty Constance, the play’s apparent lynchpin, for starters – Steel changes direction, style, and tone. The director, Blanche McIntyre, works overtime to bring it all together but both the first-act curtain, and the finish, seem decidedly arbitrary and abrupt.

Events traverse the decades, picking up on Britain at key historical moments starting in 1965 that are too neatly signalled: a 1979 sequence pays inevitable reference to “that Margaret Thatcher” in a play whose characters’ political affiliations will prove decisive, and divisive, as we get nearer to a present informed by Brexit, though that word itself goes unmentioned.

The opening sequence shows the laying out of a corpse whose body is being washed, a post-death ritual that will be amplified across a play involving people who may not go to their maker quite so quietly. (One of them pops out of a body bag to continue the father-son debate that he hadn’t finished while he was alive.)

At first, attention is directed towards Duff’s Constance, a gifted singer trapped in a snarky marriage that here plays like a conscious nod to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, complete with Bette Davis references (as in Edward Albee’s play) and a wife who can’t stop needling her apparently quiescent husband.

The put-upon spouse, Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie), is a politically minded shop steward who, in one of this play’s surrealist flights of fancy, engages the onetime Labour Party grandee Nye Bevan (Mark Meadows) in conversation: “The whole post-War manifesto is in ruins,” we’re told in one of the frequent on-the-nose assertions on which the writing relies.

You expect so capaciously conceived a play – the cast numbers 12 in all, several of whom take two or even three roles – to teem with activity but Steel for mostly prefers one-on-one encounters that get increasingly shouty. The bulk of the discord falls to Constance and Alistair’s son Jack (Michael Grady-Hall), a onetime Communist who finds himself marrying a Tory named Helen, and his embittered sister Agnes (Kelly Gough), whom we also encounter as their teenage selves.

To complicate matters, Constance near the end is played by the same veteran actress (the invaluable Carol Macready) who has played that character’s own mother earlier on, while Duff then reappears in flashback – a problem for the play’s arrival into the near-present (2019 to be exact) that devotes most of its attention to looking backwards.

We glean an eleventh-hour understanding of the younger Jack’s diffidence towards his mum, but the play by that point is so busy firing in all directions that it’s difficult to reconcile the social backdrop (outsourcing of jobs, zero-hour contracts) with domestic calamities that include the premature death of a third sibling, Laura (Emma Shipp), and a graphic abortion sequence that can’t help but evoke the roiling political landscape in America today.

Steel should be commended for the reach and scope of a play that, to its additional credit, is markedly different from her terrific, all-male Wonderland, which was rightly lauded in 2014. And in a season in which so many new British plays are set in America (The Fever Syndrome and The 47th, just for starters), a state-of-the-nation analysis of how we got here from there, so to speak, couldn’t be more apt.

And yet one can’t help feel as if these dramatically vital ingredients have yet to be given the best possible placement and shape: we’re in the shadow, perhaps, of something major that may with time come to the boil just as these characters’ seething passions do.

The House of Shades is at the Almeida Theatre to 18 June.

Photo credit: Anne-Marie Duff and Carol Macready (Photo by Helen Murray)

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