Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Skin of Our Teeth

Thornton Wilder
Young Vic
(2004)

This play, written in 1942 is a rich post-modern analysis of the human condition. It contains three vastly differing acts and with director David Lan's inventiveness and a strong cast presents a very thought-provoking and entertaining evening.

The play centres on the Antrobus family but also their maid, the sulky, uppity and generally too pretty Sabina, played with great humour by Indira Varma who clearly knows how to work an audience. This is necessary as the production demands that many of the actors pull in and out of character and requires a level of audience participation more commonly seen in pantomimes.

The first two acts are clearly biblical in origin, while the third may have influences in both Revelations and the commencement of Genesis.

At the start, we see Mr and Mrs Antrobus, played by the wonderfully magisterial David Troughton and the frantic Maureen Beattie, at their home in New Jersey in 1942. All seems well, although the weather is chilly in midsummer. One begins to smell a rat as their pet dinosaur and mammoth invade the living room in search of heat.

This superb play-within-a-play is worked out on Richard Hudson's traverse set that has a few shocks in store of its own. The Ice Age has arrived with a vengeance and Mr Antrobus, the inventor of the wheel, of the alphabet and multiplication tables, tries to hold his world together in the face of a coming apocalypse.

He is not helped by his son, Jonas Armstrong as Henry, who has the mark of Cain on his forehead with good reason. What we have is a combination of farce, horror-movie and biblical epic of the Creation that never fails to entertain and grip its audience. There are even guest appearances from Moses and Homer to add philosophical weight.

The second act sees the family at a kind of Coney Island fair and pleasure beach as a different natural disaster, a flood is impending to spoil the celebrations for the 5,000th wedding anniversary of President and Mrs Antrobus.

The problem is slightly different now as sin is the main focus, with the President seduced by Miss Varma as scarlet seductress, beauty queen Miss Fairweather and daughter Gladys (played by Abby Ford) only too keen to emulate the Queen.

As the partying continues, the end of the world seems all too nigh and a deluge approaches. Ultimately, noble Antrobus has to choose between temptation and the frumpish Mrs Antrobus, whose main aim is to keep the family together, not to mention the biblically necessary animals of the Earth.

The shorter final act after the second interval, is heralded by even more shocking inventiveness from Messrs Lan and Troughton. For once, they go too far over the top in their efforts to shock and sober up their audience.

The family have now arrived in New Jersey after a post apocalyptic war and are trying to get back together. The cheery Sabina has flourished as ever and Gladys is now a mother. Antrobus and Henry are bitter enemies and now perhaps there is a sign of how power moves down through generations.

With a little help from three philosophers in the audience, the play eventually moves full circle back to the start of time or at least the living room in 1942.

This is a very inventive production and occasionally the director tries to be a little too clever rather letting the play do its own work. It is at times shocking, funny and philosophical and is graced with a strong cast happy to ad lib wittily.

In that it is hardly ever seen, one would be recommending a visit to The Skin of our Teeth anyway. In this exciting, if sometimes slightly flawed version that recommendation is increased tenfold.

"The Skin of Our Teeth" plays until 10th April

Reviewer: Philip Fisher