Shady Dolls Theatre
The Courtyard at Covent Garden, Theatre Museum
Has the National re-located to Covent Garden? Homestead, Steven Dykes' retelling of The House of Bernarda Alba is the kind of grand, cathartic epic more usually seen gracing the stage of the Olivier or the Lyttleton than that of a fringe theatre about to close for lack of funding. I hope one of Nicholas Hytner's team does make the trip down to the Theatre Museum at some point before 15th October, because Dykes' own production of Homestead is ripe for a no-expenses-spared reincarnation in one of the loftier spaces on the South Bank.
Which is not to say that there is anything much missing from the production in its current incarnation. Dykes' all-female cast, led by Hollie Garrett's stoical matriarch Lillian Beckman, lead the audience on an epic journey which traces the lives of a mother and her five young daughters living in the deep South following the death of their ranch-owner husband and father. Lillian Beckman has no son to take her husband's place, although Ray Beckman did, unknown to his grieving family, father an illegitimate son by the family maid, Clarice. A major theme of the play is that of women surrounded by the demands and temptations of good-for-nothing males, from their dead husband/father, to the undisclosed heir to the ranch and the local traders who see a lone female ranch-owner and smell vulnerability. Ultimately, tragedy will come in the handsome form of Mary Beth's fiancé, who proposes for money and then falls prey to the more obvious charms of her sister, Adele, while also managing to break the heart of Lillian's third child, Mara Lee.
The truthful line of Dykes' direction and the cast's strong ensemble work, mirroring the dynamic of a family pulling together in grief and fear, are particularly impressive. Cast and director have taken great care with not only the individual characterisation of each role, but with the highly credible way in which each character has carved out her niche in the family. The staging and sound design are strikingly naturalistic and effective, although to be brutally honest, some of the ensemble a capella pieces, while easy on the ear, could have gained effect by losing a few verses. That, perhaps, is the play's only fault - while its two and a half hours including interval echo the epic vastness of the land and the long history of its inhabitants, and the final scene is nonetheless worth the wait, it could comfortably lose half an hour in singing and marginally unnecessary scenes used to show the inter-relationship of each and every character. Strip those away, however, and this could be a truly great play.
Homestead is that rare thing, a play based on another play which has a new, fresh, legitimate voice of its own. Shady Dolls' impressive production raises a significant question for London theatre and those responsible for its funding and development - why is a theatre producing such high quality new writing about to close, while the West End continues to churn out luke warm tourist-pleasers which add so little to the cultural life of the nation?
Until 15 October 2006
Reviewer: Louise Hill