After the success of his recent feature films High Hopes and Life Is Sweet (and with his latest, Naked, imminent), Mike Leigh's creative process is well known. The actors generate the characters and lines during weeks of improvisation sessions; Leigh guides them and hones the resulting material into a final script. His first British stage project in twelve years embodies the Theatre Royal's intimate links with its community. In two separate but linked acts set in Stratford a century apart, the stresses of a husband-wife relationship burst from comedy into sudden violence; to say more would be to give away the plot.
The theatre's newly restored interior provides the right ambience for the first act's chirpy Victorian caricatures. It's a world of pubs, pugilism and petty larceny, where lanky, genial drayman Jim (Paul Trussell) falls for the pocket-sized Ada (Wendy Nottingham) only to find himself worked harder by her than by the brewery until he cracks, or rather erupts. Equal focus and greater sympathy are given to Nellie, a waif of little brain who is infatuated with Jim; Kathy Burke's creation is (once again) a malodorous toerag who alternates between yapping puppy-like at Jim and gaping in mute shock for minutes on end when first meeting Ada.
This act seems only partially knocked into shape. It's around twenty minutes too long, and could lose both a scene between a brewer's heir and his fiancée (possibly a plot strand that atrophied in rehearsal), and a pointless stream of music-hall songs dahn the pub. Re-setting between the numerous brief scenes also cripples the pace.
Gender roles are reversed after the interval, as the incessant bleating of present-day Randall drives wife Joy to desperation. This is familiar Leigh territory, oozing wry but warm observations of contemporary quirks. Marianne Jean-Baptiste makes the running as sister-in-law Faith, a would-be buppie nagging Joy to improve herself with apercus like "What really counts in life is how much megabyte you've got as a person." Where the first act swings between extremes of laughter and horror, the second is more of a piece. The evening as a whole illustrates both Leigh's remarkable skill in his field, and the ever-present pitfalls that can't here be consigned to a cutting-room floor.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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