I doubt whether Joshua Goldstein gets invited to many parties. On the strength of this double bill, his worldview is unremittingly morose – a trail of traumas and tumours that begins at conception, if even that can be achieved.
The First Years is a one-woman curtain-raiser, in which doting mother Sarah enacts the tribulations of her one-year-old son's cancer – at first operable, then in remission, finally terminal. Laurel Lefkow as Sarah captures the slow attrition of such tragedy upon a loved one, her brittle optimistic smile gradually stiffening into a rictus. She is the essence of Eisenhower-era apple-pie Momhood. Her committed performance, however, struggles against a script which is no more than a short story. Occasionally mouthing the lines of her husband or a succession of doctors, Lefkow is called upon to recount rather than enact events, and she can't create drama where there is none to be elicited. Right to its non-ending, the piece is written for the page rather than the stage.
Beginnings deals with a forty-year-old couple's infertility problems, with a touch of family schizophrenia and another cancer thrown in along the way. Although the cast of six engage in often intimate dialogue, the feeling of second-hand action persists.
Ron Berglas as Paul brings out the grim comedy of being repeatedly required to masturbate to order into a series of plastic cups, and ably portrays the on-off tensions with wife Julia (Fiona Mollison) and those around him. Even with such a comfortably sized cast, though, Goldstein is over-reliant on monologue, and uncannily well-turned monologue at that. No-one on the planet articulates their neuroses, whether in soliloquy or dialogue, with such precision. These characters speak with the voice of a Philip Roth narrative, and their psychological self-dissections make Woody Allen's more sombre films sound like The Darling Buds Of May. Even the occasional simplistic phrase doesn't tumble out so much as get deployed.
Susannah York's direction can do little in the face of such material except try to smooth out the hiccups between the more natural passages and the slabs of lapidary prose in a pair of plays which give us all the tensions and suffering of particularly blighted lives, and don't include the kitchen sink so much as the kidney-dish.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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