The Confessions

Alexander Zeldin
Zeldin Company / Compagnie A Zeldin
National Theatre (Lyttelton Theatre)

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Lilit Lesser as Pat, Jerry Killick as Eldon, Pamela Rabe as Viv, Eryn Jean Norvill as Alice and Joe Bannister Graham Credit: Christophe Reynaud de Lage
Amelda Brown as Alice Credit: Christophe Reynaud de Lage
Eryn Jean Norvill as Alice, Joe Bannister as Terry and Brian Lipson as Freddy Credit: Christophe Reynaud de Lage
Eryn Jean Norvill as Alice, Pamela Rabe as Viv and Yasser Zadeh as Leigh Credit: Christophe Reynaud de Lage
Pamela Rabe as Peg and Eryn Jean Norvill as Alice Credit: Christophe Reynaud de Lage

During lockdown, playwright Alexander Zeldin had conversations with his elderly mother when she talked about her long life. They and interviews with many of her peers have resulted in this play, though, as he confessed to The Guardian’s Sarah Crompton, “there is a lot that is made up. It’s a kind of dance with the truth, and maybe that dance gets you closer to the actual truth.”

The play begins with white-haired, 80-year-old Alice (Amelda Brown) in front of the curtain frankly telling the audience, “I’m not interesting,” but then gets on non-stop for two hours showing just how extraordinary an ordinary life is. She will be there, leading us through her life and stepping in at one crucial point to re-enact it. Marg Horwell’s sets match her memory, focused on key things and leaving out the detail that she doesn’t recall.

As a little girl, Alice thought of a man in a picture on the wall as her daddy, not the strange man back from the war who turned up claiming to be him. Daddy was a painter who stopped painting because that couldn’t support a family. He was a daddy who wanted the best for her, sent her to a posh school they couldn’t really afford hoping to give her an advantage, but her mother Peg was not aspirational; in her world, you got a husband who would then look after you.

Amelda Brown’s Alice passes through the stage curtains which open to reveal another set of red curtains behind them, a high school stage with its motto "Luceat Lux Rostra" ("Let Your Light Shine"). She pushes through them too and pops back, now a young Alice played by Eryn Jean Norvill, accompanied by a couple of classmates. They are excited by the anticipated arrival of some randy young sailors.

Alice has her sights on academia but doesn’t survive a first year at university. Dad (Brian Lipson) wants her to try again. Pamela Rabe’s manipulative mother pushes her into marrying Joe Bannister’s sailor, Graham. It isn’t a good match, nor is Alice happy at becoming a schoolteacher. Is she having an affair with radical, more bohemian friend Leigh (Yasser Zadeh)? Graham is fed up with the Navy and he just wants children. Through an evening course on poetry, she gets involved with its Welsh lecturer, Joss (Jerry Killick), and takes off for Melbourne caught up with formidable feminist Eva (Pamela Rabe, doubling very differently) and predatory campus wolf Terry (another very different double from Joe Bannister) with traumatic consequences.

Putting that behind her, Alice gets to London. At the British Museum, she meets Vienna-born Jacob (Brian Lipson), and her life begins a new, better phase.

As the play moves from 1943 to almost now, it combines very naturalistic dialogue and performance with a staging that always reminds this is theatre. It carries a satirical edge in the way it presents ordinariness, but this is painfully real life, all too recognisably true, even, perhaps especially, in its most theatrical moments when, as Brian Lipson’s respected elderly painter sits alone on stage, we know exactly what is happening behind closed doors; when Amelda Brown’s Alice confronts Terry and most movingly in the scene where Eryn Jean Norvill’s Alice shares her feelings with Jacob, which is theatre magic.

The Confessions plays in a single act two hours long, but it seems over too soon for it holds every minute.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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