The National Theatre's press office requests reviewers not to "reveal the key event" that involves one of the characters in Simon Stephens' modern family drama. I don't see why not – this isn't a thriller or a whodunnit, after all – but suffice to say that it's entirely typical of Stephens that the most cataclysmic occurrences can take place not only offstage, but almost between the cracks of the story: it's not the event itself that is of dramatic interest, but its reverberations.
After his hat-trick of London productions last year (two, Christmas and One Minute, at the Bush; the third, Country Music, at the Royal Court), Stephens is an established playwriting presence, his mode of operation known. Simply, he looks at people, at their lives. Looks sympathetically. Doesn't overdo things – ordinary stories are drama enough for most of us in our own lives, after all. So, here, we see three generations of a Stockport family. Grandsons Alex and Christopher turn against granddad Charlie when they come to believe he beats his wife. Charlie likes a drop and has a bit of a temper, so domestic matters are strained in any case. And the intervening generation, parents Peter and Alice, seem on the verge of separating, as each stands on the brink of involvement with another person in the empty wake of Alex's departure for London with his girlfriend.
Sarah Frankcom's production (in collaboration with the Royal Exchange in Manchester, where it premièred last month) matches the writing. The action takes place beneath a huge blue semi-globe of a starscape, on a circular floorcloth showing a aerial photograph of Stockport broken up by latitude and longitude lines: the Holmes family's lives are the world to them, as each of ours are to us. Yet it is ultimately less satisfying than those plays of last year. At two and a half hours plus, it feels prolonged beyond its natural compass (no pun intended); that title with its allusion to Keats, one or two set-piece speeches, a late-arriving motif of people declaring that their heads are being done in, and an almost shockingly contrived happy-ending coda all sound false notes. The worst failing of a Stephens play is to be overwrought, but on occasion, in the second half especially, this is. But roll on the next work by this (normally) unshowily beautiful writer.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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