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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Blanche McIntyre directs Beth Steel’s premiere at the Almeida. Set Designer Anna Fleischle, Lighting Design Richard Howell, Sound Designer Gregory Clarke. Video Designer Isaac Madge, Associate Set Designer Liam Bunster

Casting Director Annelle Powell CDG, Movement and Intimacy Director Polly Bennett, Dialect Coach Esl Acquaah-Harrison, Fight Director Kevin McCurdy, Associate Fight Director Sam Behan

Costumer Supervisor Natasha Prynne, Associate Director Emily Ling Williams.

Till June 18th


Greek tragedy as kitchen-sunk drama? It rises wraith-like as a state-of-the-nation one we’ve been missing. Family tragedy wreaking splits, raging politics, a world abandoned by the south, losses made losers, smug aspiration levelling not down but flat.

Beth Steel’s House of Shades spans one ex-mining family 1965-2019. Wilson through Thatcher to post-Brexit with a twist. ‘She’s really pissed on your strawberries’ comments Agnes to her twin Jack about his Tory wife. From that you’d hazard Steel’s take on junketing. Recent or current.

Then there’s the caustic fire of Anne-Marie Duff’s Constance, mother to those twins. ‘My spite was my freedom. A thing I chose for myself.’ And with each stage in its un-Greek five acts, more ghosts seep under the living, confront and talk with them; sturdy realism brilliantly shivers apart. No wonder the house crashes down. And Beattie Edney’s Neighbour is sterling as chorus, later inhabiting her bitter avatar as a loan-shark, amused vitriol as acid as her pink padded coat. It’s women who centre this drama, carry its bitter conscience, good and bad.

This echoes Steel’s hinterland where 70% voted Brexit and the red wall fell. She at least wasn’t surprised. There’s nothing like Steel’s drama anywhere, or at least anywhere south. Hardly surprising when so much talent, so many dissenting voices are being systematically choked, in a world geared to treachery.

Initially a covid casualty, House of Shades allowed Steel time to fillet a new ending. Premiering at the Almeida it proves  – mostly – outstanding. Actually inspired by the Almeida’s 2015 Oresteia, it’s as strong in its microcosm as Steel’s 2014 epic Wonderland stormed a whole way of life. Also based around Nottingham, that great play charted the decline of mining, ending with a pit collapse. Steel gets implosion, immiseration, hopelessness like no other contemporary dramatist.

Steel describes Duff’s Constance Webster as the spider whose web both enables and ensnares. Magnetic, by turns radiant and slinky, swaggering and stiletto’d, Constance is trapped in a wrong marriage to the first man who came along. Duff’s the great draw, everything crisps to her incandescence. She’s outstanding, though not the only one to admire.

Stuart McQuarrie’s phlegmatic, mostly gentle Alistair (later their son Jack) – isn’t to blame for trapping her. But he’s part of the family that does, reaching back to Constance’s mother Edith (Carol Macready) and the strap-flaying dead father laid out at the start, who stopped her attending grammar school, the parallel life Constance dreamed of as a thwarted singer.

Duff sings stunningly too: first off ‘I’m forever chasing rainbows’ as Mark Meadows’ Entertainer –  we first take this figure as spectral, but – accompanies on an upright stage-right. We get Chopin (that sung Prelude, a Nocturne) like a shiver of aspiration. But then daughter Agnes has brought Alistair’s library books ‘except the Yeats’. There’s stories here never told.

It means nothing to Constance. ‘I dint want to clean this house. I wanted to smash it’ Duff blasts back. Careful what you wish for. But threading through this narrative, as memories from two characters keep returning, there’s one buried theme that explodes later, twice, around daft daughter Laura, teased out with hapless affect by Emma Shipp.

In another decade Constance tries ingratiating herself with her son Jack’s new wife Helen (Emily Lloyd-Saimi), Asian, middle-class (another story we don’t get, though how could we?). ‘I’m not working-class, thank you’ she declares: it’s a state of mind.

It’s the point where the twins schematically split. Kelly Gough (later adult granddaughter Natalie), is particularly strong as Agnes, confirming a sullen blaze of idealism that never falters, the moral core that charts the abandonment of whole communities. ‘Left behind?’ (now as her daughter Natalie) Gough sneers much later to a complacent much older Jack (McQuarrie).

Jack’s trajectory seems fixed as Gus Barry’s teen declares himself a communist. You guess right away but the suddenness is shocking. As is late on a flashback where Constance kisses Jack’s teen self briefly but sensually on the lips before another shocking revelation. It’s these layered traumas Steel points to, to illumine desolate choices.

As middle Jack, Michael Grady-Hall’s most intense moments come fighting either McQuarrie as Alistair or Gough’s Agnes. One telling moment has Grady-Hall fix a decades-leaking tap under shadow of demolition, to Gough’s utter bemusement. The living get a chance to reconcile with the dead in a world notably unforgiving. The scene between McQuarrie and Grady-Hall is touching, funny, ultimately harrowing.

McQuarrie’s confrontation with Gough’s Natalie brings the greatest political surprise too, as Gough charts the reason behind resentment at immigration, cheap labour undercutting – we’ve seen this from the 1985 act with firms outsourcing to Korea. And (unnamed) Sports Direct with the terrible incident of a woman giving birth in a toilet furnishes a devastating finale as two moments become one.

This family self-propagates as actors take over older selves or flip back to their younger ones – who even double their elder versions side-by-side on occasion. This often occurs onstage where literal hand-overs illumine the point.

And in one dazzling moment, there’s a simultaneous fight-scene between older and younger version of the twins. One set reconcile, the other tragically doesn’t. Some family stick in the fissure between acts, and haunt, and haunt. ‘Death silences no one, least of all the dead’ says one dead character visited by their child.

Blanche McInytre paces Steel’s play furiously with rapt moments. Whatever caveats levelled as it opened have sleeked out. Anna Fleischle’s kitchen set (blue Formica sixties that never updates) is dwarfed by the diaphanous backdrop upstage including stairs. However lit by Richard Howell it takes on its own solidity, when hospital beds move in and out, or the stage clears for layings-out, allotments and graves, even cellarage descents. The play almost bursts out of it. Liam Bunster’s costumes take in the decades, particularly those details of cheap, out-of-date versus razor-Tory. Gregory Clarke’s sound stripes music with the shiver of ghosts. Isaac Madge’s video projections, vivid as posters are just a little small to hit home.

There’s another strong performance from Issie Riley as young Agnes and her (equally when young) daughter Natalie, both full of the life that’ll be sapped. To Agnes’ husband Eddie another abandoned idealist not (it’s claimed) of the sharpest, and later Jack’s second-in-command Neil, Daniel Millar brings eagerness and hard-bitten realism.

Macready’s Edith and older Constance are studies in quieter anger. You don’t receive a fuller Edith, marginalised as she is, perhaps not a recognisable tang. But you get bitterness and backlit memory. Lloyd-Saimi, subdued or cornered as Helen, enjoys as Sarah a brief flirtation with McQuarrie’s older Jack; but again her character’s whisked away.

Meadows’ Entertainer is a vision with a story, though as Aneurin Bevan he’s given an impossible task of lecturing to a man on the cusp of death the virtue and future of Labour. You want it, though the scene, otherwise necessary in the beat of deaths per act, hangs in from somewhere else.

Minor flaws perhaps, I’m not counting; several ironed out by the second week. This is a great play for the most part, with performances running clear as the true darkness Steel brings to our understanding. It wakes us all up. There’ll be nothing more blazing or relevant on the London stage this year.