April De Angelis
Theatre Royal Plymouth
Nobody who sees After Electra could deny that its central character, Virgie is an eccentric. Indeed, many might come to the conclusion that the 81-year-old artist played by Marty Cruikshank is the oddest figure seen on a London stage since Mark Rylance portrayed Johnny 'Rooster' Byron in Jerusalem.
The drama takes place today in her Michael Taylor-designed studio/living room in what appears to be a converted wooden railway carriage on the Essex coast.
There, Virgie's guests are greeted with the surprising news that they have been summoned to celebrate her impending suicide. Unsurprisingly, this rather fazes the grouping of oddballs who were expecting a typically tedious birthday party.
Particularly put out is Haydn Veronica Roberts's the disappointing and disappointed daughter turned bereavement counsellor.
The party also includes a warring married couple, boring actor Tom and frustrated novelist Sonia, respectively Neil McCaul and Kate Fahy plus Virgie's sister, Rachel Bell as Shirley a former headmistress now gracing the House of Lords.
The comic repartee contains a series of jokes, showing a good line in gallows humour in the old lady’s case. A number of these missed the mark on opening night but others proved suitably amusing, if generally doing little to advance the plot.
The arrival of James Wallace playing son Orin, a homeless drunk does little to suggest that anyone normal is likely to appear at any point during the 2½ hours.
After the interval, during which a year passes by, the lively hostess has become far more subdued, to say the least. It is only now that we begin to learn far more about her from the gathered company.
While they may all be somewhat caricatured, the group fleshes out the life of someone who could easily have become a feminist icon, as a female abstract expressionist when the genre was going out of fashion.
The cast is eventually completed by Michael Begley as dull minicab driver Roy, entirely inserted for laughs, and more interestingly Eleanor Wyld's Miranda, an acolyte of the artist who helps to show her in a completely different light.
Under the direction of Samuel West, Marty Cruikshank gives a strong performance as Virgie, showing not only the oddity of her character but also the impact that old age and infirmity can have on the strongest individuals.
After Electra can get rather lost in its strange situational comedy but eventually those who are willing to stick with it should begin to appreciate a portrait of an unusual free spirit, whose willingness to laugh at societal norms can either be seen as shocking or inspirational.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher