There have been a clutch of 1960s revivals in the West End over the past couple of years, from the comedy Rattle Of A Simple Man to the thriller Wait Until Dark. All, though, have struggled to be perceived as more than curios, their resurrection mildly intriguing but principally rather mystifying. However, Bill McIlwraith's 1966 comedy of family power-play (in a production which originated at Liverpool Playhouse) is a vicious delight. At its centre is a masterclass performance in comic maternal villainy given with evident enjoyment by Sheila Hancock.
South London, 1966. Tom brings his pregnant fiancée Shirley home for the annual wedding-anniversary ritual orchestrated by his widowed, scalpel-tongued, deviously possessive mother. Of Tom's brothers and co-workers in the (shoddy) family building business, Terry is a weakling, trying to get up the nerve to announce his imminent emigration to Canada just to get away from Mum, and Henry is a considerate, gentle giant who just happens also to be a compulsive transvestite. Tom hasn't mentioned Shirley to Mum yet either. This is the point at which the phrase "hilarious consequences" is routinely trotted out, more often than not fraudulently.
Here, though, Mum's arsenal of bitchy comments and Machiavellian stratagems is a creation of darkly glittering and consistently funny beauty. Even someone like me who has problems with comedy of embarrassment (I keep identifying too strongly with the victim) cannot help but revel in this case of jealous mothering as a black art.
In the original 1966 production Hancock played Terry's wife Karen, engaged in open combat with Mum but always coming off second best in her husband's loyalties. The part has its moments, as do all five others, but this is Mum's show, and Hancock now uses her seemingly effortless mastery of comic timing and delivery to devastating effect. She never misses a beat, even when a prop misbehaves, and thanks to McIlwraith's writing can usually deliver two or three distinct stabs in a single sentence.
Denis Lawson's production is deft in its human dynamics, and skilfully deploys just the right amount of period camp. But the evening is really devoted to Hancock's exquisitely squirm-inducing performance. Usually the heart sinks when a too-enthusiastic opening-night audience claps a big-name actor simply for walking onto the stage: oh, well, you think, they'll go ape for anything. At the end of these two hours, though, if I could have travelled back in time I'd have joined in that first burst of applause.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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