By Simon Woods.
The Lyttelton, National theatre, Upper Ground, London SE1 9PX to 25 November 2019.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Tues & Sat 2.15pm but check dates with box office.
Runs: 80 minutes. No interval.
Tickets: 020 7452 3000.
Review: William Russell 5 September.
This is a curate’s egg of a play, very good in parts but ultimately unsatisfying. It is set in1988 in the Cotswold home of a Tory minister, Robin Hesketh played by Alex Jennings. He is involved in promoting the controversial Section 28 of the Local Government Act which banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality as acceptable and such teaching in schools. His wife Diana, played by Lindsey Duncan, is waiting for him to turn up as they have invited friends to lunch. But she is still in her nightdress, nothing is ready, and she is clearly under stress and drinking too much. When he arrives they embark on a splendid marital battle, more Private Lives than anything else at first but moving in to Virginia Wold territory as it proceeds, The exchange of barbed remarks are very funny indeed as are his reflections on life with “Margaret”. Given actors like Jennings and Duncan one gets splendid performances that hold the attention throughout. She voices her suspicions as to what he gets up to in tow, they talk about their son, fret over the foxes rampaging in the garden outside, look at some old home cinema footage, he prepares a bloody Mary, and she resists getting dressed until they eventually decide they will just have to take the expected guests out to lunch. It is perfectly obvious there is more to the goings on than at first it seems and by the end we learn just what it is, a revelation which requires the actors to shift gear from the high polish verbal savagery of the first part to expressing real pain. The surprise is something not to be revealed and it does bring the play to a powerful conclusion just as one is beginning to wonder what it was all about.
But just why Diana is so unfulfilled is hard to understand. It is 1988 and even Conservative politicians’ wives were not required to be little women at home waiting for himself to come back any longer. But Jennings is every inch the Tory minister of the day on the make and Duncan embodies a woman in crisis.
It has been well directed, and the set is very handsome indeed. But the Littleton stage is vast and the play, which cries out to be set in one room, probably the kitchen, gets a Cinerama set which covers a Country Life kitchen, the dining room a vista of the hall at the back with the hall bathroom beyond that and since it is a two hander the actors have to prowl all over. The National lacks the sort of stage in which the play would fit. No stage room is ever the size of a real room but provided the illusion works so will the play. Here one is perfectly well aware that the pair are either shouting across vast spaces at one another or huddled in one corner of the set.
But it does entertain even if the politics of the time are those of yesterday and Hesketh not really like any of today’s men. But the jokes are good and some are bang on cue for the National’s audience. Robin’s assertion that he does not understand “the insatiable desire of the people of this country to be fucked by an old Etonian” went down wonderfully well, getting the biggest laugh of the night.
Robin Hesketh: Alex Jennings.
Diana Hesketh: Lindsey Duncan.
Director: Simon Goodwin.
Set & Costume Designer: Hildegarde Bechtler.
Lighting Designer: Jackie Shemesh.
Music: Michael Bruce.
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt.
Video Content: Isaac Madge.
Movement Director: Shelley Maxwell.
Company Voice Work: Jeanette Nelson.
Production photograph: Catherine Ashmore.