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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Court Theatre


There’s so much rage in Penelope Skinner’s new play, and there should be: rage about the way women are indoctrinated from birth with the belief that it’s their duty to be pretty and pleasing; rage about the way we become invisible as time passes, as we “lose our looks” and with them, in the eyes of the world, our very being and purpose; rage about the way our bodies, if deemed desirable, are regarded as public property, to be gawped at, assessed, groped and consumed; rage about the way our bodies, if deemed undesirable, become a horror or a joke; rage about the fact that whatever else we are, or think, or feel, or do, we are first and foremost judged on our appearance – and on that basis, we can never, ever, be good enough.
With so much rage flying about, perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that Linda isn’t a perfectly formed piece of writing. Yes, she could shed some weight; she has some lumpy, bumpy, expositional sections, some chunks of flabby dialogue, and it sometimes feels as if she’s trying just a little bit too hard. But I was extremely happy to meet her, because we don’t see nearly enough of her and her like; and I think that in her own way, she’s beautiful.
The titular character was to have been played, in Michael Longhurst’s production, by Kim Cattrall, and it sounded like canny casting. As the libidinous Sex and the City man-eater Samantha Jones, Cattrall was, refreshingly, a woman with both a brain and carnal appetite; it might have been interesting to see her tackling a character of a similar age, stripped of the Manhattan gloss and the carefully scripted aphorisms. It was not to be; Cattrall pulled out at the 11th hour, citing health issues. The excellent news, however, is that Noma Dumezweni stepped up to don Linda’s power suits in Cattrall’s place, and although she still, perfectly understandably, had to resort to occasional peeks at the script on opening night, her performance is overwhelmingly gutsy and heartfelt.
Linda is 55, and a resounding, all-round success. She’s forged a brilliant career as a marketing executive for Swan, a leading beauty brand, busting through one glass ceiling after another on her way up. She’s happily married, with two bright, clever daughters. She has plenty of money, a beautiful home, her health and, yes, she still looks pretty good too. But though it seems she’s secure, things are starting to slip. At work, she’s marginalised in favour of a new, pretty young colleague, Amy (Amy Beth Hayes). Her husband (Dominic Mafham) is more worryingly distracted than usual. And her children, 25-year-old Alice (Karla Crome) and 15-year-old Bridget (Imogen Byron), don’t appear to be turning into the kind of super-confident, world-beating young women she’s always tried to teach them that they can be. Like so many women, and despite a life spent in tireless effort and determination, she finds herself plagued by doubt and guilt – what has she done wrong, and how can she fix it?
Skinner is astute in pointing up all the tiny compromises that plague and corrode the happiness Linda ought, surely, to have earned for herself – issues so seemingly minor, and so long shrugged off, that she doesn’t even notice them anymore. That her husband Neil offers to cook dinner but doesn’t shop for the ingredients, makes an epic mess and then leaves it to her to clean the kitchen. That her boss – a supporter of Linda when she was younger – dismisses any workplace disagreement she might have with Amy as bitchiness or cat-fighting. That the work she loves has eaten into the time she has given her daughters, that they resent her for it, and that her relentless creed of determination and self-belief makes the damaged Alice feel not empowered, but horribly inadequate.
There are layers of allusion. Bridget, about to audition for drama school, despairs at the paucity of meaty roles for girls; Linda’s eventual, highly dramatic unravelling has shades of King Lear. And what with Neil’s pathetic dreams of being a middle-aged rock star, his rather inevitable affair with a young bandmate (Merriel Plummer), and Alice’s background as a revenge-porn victim and depressive self-harmer, the drama feels overcrowded, not every character quite achieved.
But Es Devlin’s set is a gleaming-white, curved, illuminated revolving wonder, alluring as the glittering beauty hall of an upmarket department store, and shining with just as much illusory promise. And around Dumezweni’s blazing performance, Longhurst’s production fizzes and stings, its edges sharp even when the writing is at its most blunt, its passions emblazoned on its elegant sleeves. So it’s untidy – so what? Flawless it most certainly is not. But this is theatre to make the blood boil.


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