In the programme notes to the Chichester Minerva's production of In Celebration, Dominic Dromgoole writes of his recent and revelatory encounter with the work of David Storey. Having missed what I believe to have been the only two productions of his major works during my career – the 1996 Royal Court Classics revival of The Changing Room, and Dromgoole's Oxford Stage Company tour of The Contractor – I fervently testify to the Damascene experience of finally coming across Storey. Why on earth has this superbly subtextual playwright, this master of the unspoken, been allowed to fall out of fashion over the last two decades?
One short answer would be Thatcher. By effectively abolishing the working class, she also abolished Storey's dramatic constituency. Now, when we see the ageing Mr Shaw in In Celebration launch into a coughing fit on lighting up and mutter apologetically, "Coal dust," we laugh, because we ascribe the state of his lungs solely to smoking, because in turn we cannot remember what mining entailed; we are reminded later in the play, when he explains with grim pride how he works his seam in a tunnel only thirteen inches deep.
This play, though, is not about the mines, but about a family reunion for the Shaws' ruby wedding anniversary. The three sons whom they raised to have more opportunities than they had themselves return to the family nest for one night, during which the youngest and favourite son retreats ever further into silence and tears whilst his eldest surviving brother unleashes his bitterness that they have been unfitted both for the life they came from and the one their parents wished for them.
It is a beautifully unsparing critique of class advancement, the more so because so little of it is conducted explicitly. Again as Dromgoole notes, there is a Chekhovian subtlety and appreciation of the gaps between words in Storey's work. It is said that at one point in rehearsal for the 1969 Royal Court première of this piece, director Lindsay Anderson admonished an actor, "Don't just do something – stand there!", and Sean Holmes' superb Minerva production fully respects this approach.
The interaction between the three brothers may be dominated by the ebullient acerbity of Seán Gleeson's smiling post-Jimmy Porter malcontent, but retains a firm family bond at its core; even in the mandatory second-act moment of truth, the familial bond informs the most hostile outbursts. Fred Pearson's Mr Shaw is no rumbling prole paterfamilias, but a smiling, proud and loving man, however misconceived the avenues of that love may have been; Susan Jameson as his wife is likewise serene in her envelope of protection from son Andrew's simmering childhood resentment.
This is a case history of Philip Larkin's observation on parents, but one which gives as much weight to "They may not mean to" as "but they do". It is a production which does full justice to Storey's exceptional and too long ignored skills as a playwright, and, I repeat, it is in general a revelation.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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