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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar Warehouse


  Helen McCrory/ Ph: Johan Persson

There may not be a drop of blood spilt in David Leveaux’s masterly production of this 1999 play by the late Simon Gray, but it is brimming with pain and quietly reverberant with muffled emotional violence. The drama unfolds among the comfortable upholstery and inexorably ticking clocks of bourgeois domesticity; hurts are suffered, and mutedly endured, cries of pain swiftly stifled. Life is a piquant comedy that leaves marks on a young boy that he will carry into adulthood.
This is not, however, a gloomy play. Rather, Gray’s writing has a humorous delicacy and lightness that dances, yet is tethered to a circumscribed and occasionally frightening reality by a wry wisdom. And no character dances more glitteringly than Celia Smithers, played with dangerous charisma by Helen McCrory. Amid the gossip-plagued parochialism of early 1950s Hayling Island, just off England’s south coast, she is a bright, fizzing firework, and, her world lacking the breadth of horizon that would offer her a clear sky to explode in, she jitters about in the comfortable prison of her middle-class home, spitting hazardous emotional sparks and plumes of cigarette smoke.
She is mother to 12-year-old Holliday, better known as Holly, and wife to withdrawn pathologist Charles (Peter Sullivan), psychologically scarred by the carnage he saw during the war – and in both roles, as well as in the routine of her daily existence, Celia is perilously bored and frustrated. So she earns the opprobrium of the local women in her social set by thrashing them at tennis and barely bothering to conceal her contempt for them; plays the nubile courtesan around her stolid-seeming husband, frolicking and butting him with her headful of glossy curls like a pampered kitten; and smothers her son with demonstrative affection and the hefty weight of her own ambitions. If only he can win a scholarship to an expensive London school, she tells him, they can move off the island. And as if that weren’t daunting enough for the child, she diverts herself with sadistic playacting, pretending to have been struck by blindness or sudden death until Holly is thoroughly terrified, when she bursts into peals of cruel, bright laughter.
Nor is Holly safe from the bewildering games of adults when attending the piano lessons his mother insists upon (and as ever, her reasons are impure; the lessons ought to help with the scholarship, and moreover, when he plays he reminds her of a young airman who caught her eye in wartime). Mr Brownlow (Robert Glenister), Holly’s music teacher and an aspirant composer, is a Viennese refugee whose feelings for his young pupil are worryingly intense. Holly is his muse, and also, Gray hints, his object of desire. A curious, charged intimacy develops between them, while hovering in the background like a tremulous ghost is Brownlow’s mother Ellie (Eleanor Bron). She presses hospitality on Holly with oppressive fervour; but beneath her anxiousness to please is rage at the cold comfort she has experienced from the xenophobic English and terror at memories of the past, which resurfaces in anguished shrieks: “Die Polizei!”
The 1950s action is bookended by two scenes set in the present, in which adult Holly (Sullivan again, poignantly suggesting the boy has grown into a man as emotionally muddled as his own father) confronts the now very elderly and frail Brownlow. Their connection is charged with unspoken accusation, sympathy and unresolved feelings. What have we witnessed? A boy’s lessons with an eccentric piano teacher, the banalities of an unhappy marriage and a postwar household. And yet in ordinary moments lies the personally momentous, sometimes unperceived at the time by the participants themselves. Leveaux and his cast make every one of those moments resonate; and Gray’s play, in all its off-key laughter and melancholy melody, is a stealthy heartbreaker.

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