Brian Friel
RNT Lyttelton

Andrew Scott as Casimir and Gina McKee as Judith
Dervla Kirwan as Alice and Peter McDonald as Eamon

Director Tom Cairns has collected a super cast for his revival of Brian Friel's 1979 bittersweet comedy about Irish gentry in decline. In this company, Andrew Scott, surely a star in the making, really shines as the oddest of an odd bunch.

The O'Donnells are a family of Catholic lawyers who, for generations, have ruled Ballybeg in Donegal from the big house. As youngest daughter Claire prepares for her marriage to a man twice her age, the family gathers around and is observed by a historian. Stephen Boxer plays Tom Hoffnung an affable but rather gullible Professor from Chicago.

Things are changing in the late 1970s as the patriarch, invisible until the moment of his death, loses his iron grip over the lives of his children. They are in their twenties to forties and each has found a different way to wreck their own lives.

Scott plays quirky fantasist, Casimir, seemingly a historian's dream but in practice, a man born on April Fool's Day for good reason. His tics and extravagant behaviour may be real but his wife and family in Germany almost certainly aren't. He has much fun though at the expense of the Professor, discovering more icons in the living room than would feature in the most glorious Russian Cathedral.

Marcella Plunkett as Claire may play peaceful Chopin on the piano but she is on tranquillisers and constantly seems ready to burst into tears. Her jaded eldest sister, Dervla Kirwan's "alcoholic Alice" has escaped to London with Eamonn, a member of "the local peasantry" played by Peter McDonald; and does nothing but drink away the bad memories and bruises, both metaphorical and real.

Whether their lives are any happier than maternal Judith (Gina McKee) who has given up an illegitimate baby for adoption and now nurses their irascible, incontinent father is open to question. Perhaps Anna who has become a nun living in Africa is the happiest?

The hollowness of this family's imitation of the good life is symbolically demonstrated not only by Casimir's fantasies but also by a game of faux croquet that could have come straight from Lewis Carroll.

Cairns, who also designs the massive set and has an eye for a memorable image, benefits from some excellent acting that brings out both the comedy and the tragedy of this family.

Friel cleverly brings us around to a very hopeful ending as, following father's death, the family finally accepts that life can never again be what it has been for generations of rich, bombastic O'Donnells. They must become part of the normal community and can stop acting like lords of what is now a crumbling manor. Even ancient Uncle Tom speaks for the first time in generations.

There is something desperately sad about a failing family. Aristocrats has Chekhovian depths, although the comedy is broader, and more recognisable as such, than one expects to see from the Russian master.

Friel's characterisation is excellent, as he subtly reveals pieces of information about this oddball family. On occasion during the two and a half hours, so much happens to the O'Donnells that the play can begin to feel like an upper class soap opera. Aristocrats is far better than that and is another reminder of what a good playwright Brian Friel is.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

Are you sure?