Even though he has been in the business for 40 years, Mike Leigh's work is still unique. Nobody else has the courage to turn the microscope on to dull people leading dead end lives. In fairness, if they tried to, the result would probably not be a characteristic quirky Leigh comedy but a crashing bore.
Such is his habitation of this world that Jean, the protagonist of this 1979 comedy (also seen at Hampstead, though in the old Portakabin space) could easily be described using nothing more than Leigh titles. This representative of The Silent Majority was once Happy-Go-Lucky but now a life filled with Secrets and Lies has become Topsy-Turvy and all that she has to look forward to is a series of Bleak Moments.
In Ecstasy we sit on the edge of her tiny bedsit, immaculately recreated by designer Alison Chitty using only a fraction of Hampstead's stage space to make the symbolic point of how cramped Jean's life has become. Her initial experiences with a loud-mouthed bully Roy suggest that she has not read The Joy of Sex or understood the former in the context of the latter, clearly finding the whole experience depressing.
This Brummy lass is buoyed up by her friend from home, Dawn, a marvellous creation given a great degree of realism and humorous life by Sinéad Matthews, in a role originally taken by Julie Walters. While her performance as a loud and cheery mother of three stands out, the star of the night is actually Siân Brooke, who shows great delicacy and feeling in portraying Chekhovian Jean, someone who puts on a good face while hiding unknown depths of grief.
Through not far short of three hours, we experience the bleakness of a woman in her early 30s who has nothing better to look forward to than unlimited supplies of alcohol and cigarettes and the tedium of life operating the till in a service station.
Before the interval, we see a series of encounters that lead to high comedy, as Roy's belligerent wife discovers him in flagrante and shows that she can pack a mighty punch.
The much longer second act is set on an increasingly drunken Friday night, during which Dawn and her Irish husband Mick (Allen Leech) try to sort out the world's problems before becoming frisky until, eventually, standing becomes enough of a challenge let alone doing anything more.
At the same time Len, an old friend from way back who has a soft spot for Jean and whose wife has just left him for a travelling salesman, puts on a brave face. Craig Parkinson plays this part (created for Leigh's original production by Jim Broadbent) like a natural, which one hopes that he isn't since, while decent, Len is a bit of an old bore.
As in all the best of Mike Leigh's plays and films, nothing really happens but he still manages to get his audience deeply involved in the trials and tribulations of ordinary folk. In fact, Ecstasy could be seen as a precursor to fly on the wall TV shows such as Big Brother. The big difference is that while the people in that TV show always appear to be acting their parts badly, you could easily bump into exact replicas of Jean and her friends in some decaying part of London that wishes it were upwardly mobile but never will be.
Ecstasy is a really bittersweet play with some fine comic moments and a magnificently brave ending. There is still nobody like Mike Leigh and, while it may not be an unremitting barrel of laughs, when you watch one of his plays Life Is Sweet.
Playing until 9 April
Emma Berge reviewed the transfer to the Duchess Theatre
Reviewer: Philip Fisher