Aunt Dan and Lemon

Wallace Shawn
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Publicity photo

After a rather shaky experience with Grasses of a Thousand Colours and some misgivings regarding the location of The Fever, it is a great relief to feel enthusiasm for the last staged play in the Royal Court's tribute to Wallace Shawn.

Aunt Dan and Lemon takes a sharp look at this writer's favourite subjects - politics, sex and sexual politics - through the eyes of sickly, wide-eyed Lemon (Jane Horrocks). This invalid has spent so much of her life ill that she is forced to live vicariously through the one person who showed a real interest in her development.

From the perspective of maturity, she looks back in anger and approbation at the life of someone who is both mentor and idol, her parents' American friend Danielle, or Aunt Dan. Lorraine Ashbourne makes the older woman passionate beyond belief, sometimes terrifyingly so, and, by the end, one realises that her irrepressible spirit has transferred to Lemon.

To say that Aunt Dan's views and lifestyle are eccentric and extreme is understating the case. She rides neo-con hobby horses as if they were chargers, reducing Lemon's poor mother (played by Mary Roscoe) to stunned silence and even tears of frustration.

Dan's main enthusiasm is for Henry Kissinger and his willingness to order the murder of North Korean civilians in the cause of his own country. This has disturbing parallels with the activities of the recent administration of George W. Bush in Iraq, making a play first performed almost 25 years ago in this same building, with Shawn himself playing triple roles, feel absolutely relevant to an audience today.

Her young acolyte was enthralled, not only by the storming speeches but the salacious tales of New York living in the Swinging Sixties (or Fifties?). Her friends are petty gangsters and upmarket call girls, which makes for some colourful storytelling.

This builds to a final tale featuring Scarlett Johnson as Mindy, a pretty Englishwoman whose desire for cash is so highly developed that she will stop at nothing in its pursuit.

Her story falls into place beside the common view of Aunt Dan and the pro-Nazi Lemon regarding the kind of unnatural selection that society needs in order to thrive.

This tightly plotted and directed (by Dominic Cooke) play mixes comedy with some serious philosophical propositions and grips throughout. It is graced by memorable performances in very different modes from Jane Horrocks playing gauche but determined and Lorraine Ashbourne, single-minded and devil-may-care.

Playing until 27 June

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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