Touring; seen at New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
Opened 4 February, 2008

One of Roy Williams’ strengths as a playwright is his skill at engaging with social issues without letting the thematic tail wag the dog of character-based drama. However, with Angel House – the latest touring production by the black British initiative Eclipse Theatre, run by a consortium of regional venues – it can be hard to tell where the dog ends and the tail begins. That, too, could be a strength, but with such a diffuse narrative as this it feels further unfocused. I count six or seven discrete but interwoven strands of plot among the ten characters and three generations in Williams’ play who live or have lived in the titular block of flats on an estate about to be partly demolished, partly profitably refurbished.
Listing the topics covered (crack dealing and consumption, long-held parentage secret, adolescent sexuality etc. etc.) gives the misleading impression that this is an “it’s grim up on the 15th floor” retread. Williams writes about the people, not the depredations. Nor is he saying that drugs, violence and domestic fragmentation would not exist if there were a greater supply of decent, affordable social housing, but he is acknowledging that black Britons in particular have had half a century of raw deals in this respect, going back to the days of “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”.
Paulette Randall’s production is driven by a brace of dependably strong productions from Claire Benedict as the ageing Jean, disappointed in different ways by both her sons, and Mark Monero as the younger of those two, the feckless drug-dealer Frank. They are joined by comedian Richard Blackwood, who shows surprising discipline and commitment in the role of property-developer elder brother Stephen. But as our attention ping-pongs from sibling rivalry to their two absent fathers to Frank’s imminent attack by his drug suppliers to his son Adam’s coming out to… and so on, we end up with a portmanteau play, a notoriously difficult approach to bring off in any medium, even before Williams spends virtually the entire second act having raw truths and reconciliations traded between characters in almost every available permutation.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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