Theatre Royal Bath Productions
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
Alan Bennett's not very successful 1980 comedy with a title that even he admits he doesn't understand has been revived by Theatre Royal Bath with an all-star cast for this touring production.
The Cravens are an ageing couple, Wilf and Connie, living in the very last and about to be demolished back-to-back house in Leeds. She has a rapidly-failing memory and he has no feeling in one of his arms, and they refer to each other as simply 'Mam' and 'Dad'. Wilf dotes on his daughter Linda, who doesn't return the affection at all and doesn't appear to live up to his description of her as a high-powered business woman, but he has disowned his gay son. Before they are transferred to their new maisonette, a smartly-dressed sociologist from the council arrives to silently study them in their normal home environment in order to try to preserve their sense of community and mutual assistant in their new home.
The play has a very realistic setting, designed by Janet Bird, and some very authentic performances, particularly from Alison Steadman and David Troughton as the Cravens, but the dialogue is deliberately stilted with natural-sounding phrases twisted and distorted and the plot could be said to be absurdist, even bordering on surrealism at times. The image of the grey-suited woman (who is evidently, at least to the audience, not a woman) in the corner who is not allowed to speak, and then the similarly grey-suited men who dumbly follow each neighbour that comes to visit, is a bizarre but hilarious image. The ending gradually strips reality away while seeming perfectly feasible in the world of local authorities and the 'heritage industry', but Christopher Luscombe's direction of the grey-suited officials taking charge of their lives retains the feel of a rather sinister dream.
In an interview in the programme, Bennett suggests that one reason for the failure of the original production was that it was too long. This production has apparently made extensive cuts, but it still feels as though it outstays its welcome at an advertised 145-minute running time (including interval), which the reviewed performance overran by around 15 minutes .
Troughton and Steadman are absolutely superb in the main roles of Wilf and Connie; they wring every bit of comedy out of every line without it ever feeling forced or unnatural and never trip over Bennett's carefully-phrased, awkward dialogue. Carol Macready gives a real show-stealing performance as neighbour Mrs Clegg in perhaps the funniest and blackest scene of the play, and Josie Walker is perfect as daughter Linda, contrasting sharply with her father's description of her while still keeping the character real. Richard Glaves gives a strong performance as 'Ms Craig', who has a big revelation at the end that isn't such a surprise by the time it arrives. There are some good performances in the smaller parts in the company too, which numbers fifteen actors including understudies.
While there is room for some more cutting of the text, this is a worthwhile revival of an interesting play with some hilarious comedy and some still-relevant points to make that has some superb performances in the main roles that make it well worth a visit.
Reviewer: David Chadderton