Playwright Michael Wall died shortly before the first stage presentation of Women Laughing in 1992, when its Royal Court production that year garnered enthusiastic praise from reviewers. Any number of factors may explain the discontinuity between its receptions then and now: the passage of time may have made us less ready to adhere to the principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, or it may simply have come up against an insensitive critic this time around.
The first act of Wall's play, originally written for radio in 1989, now seems a prisoner of its period. Two couples from the "Basildon classes" of the '80s (albeit living in Ealing) spend a back-garden barbecue afternoon engaging in the kind of casual gaffes, petty snobberies and social disquiet which one might expect. When it emerges that both husbands, Tony and Colin, are in psychotherapy, events veer gradually into the territory of whose treatment is better and whose problems greater or lesser, culminating in a would-be uxoricidal psychotic episode from the previously quiet Tony. After the interval, we find both men institutionalised: Colin in a state of manic, scatological conviviality, Tony withdrawn and almost autistic. As Steph not only stands by her man but discovers Colin's real warmth for the first time, the former mousewife Maddy mutates into such an infuriating blend of patronisation and wanton self-pity that we come thoroughly to share Tony's earlier urge to kill her.
In Act One in particular, a broth of theatrical antecedents is perceptible: Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party and Ayckbourn's Just Between Ourselves loom large, with pinches of Pinterian obliqueness and Tom Kempinski-like therapy-fixation thrown in to boot. Yet, although Wall has tackled marriage, misogyny and mental instability all at once and with admirable vigour, no coherent individual voice really emerges. Only with the growing reconciliation of Colin and Stephanie in Act Two does one begin to perceive a heart both to characters and writer.
Julie-Anne Robinson's production, in playing relentlessly towards the comedy of embarrassment in the first half, may have unbalanced the play; instead of sympathising first with the women and later with the shattered husks of the men, we lack any emotional focus until too late – by the time the play's finest writing was being unveiled on the stage, audience members around me had unfortunately begun to glance furtively at their watches. Whatever the reason, Women Laughing now seems an inchoate play, too unsubtle for too long and under-focused when it does move towards making comments about the nature of human relationships. A pity.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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