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The House of Shades

Beth Steel
Almeida Theatre
Almeida Theatre

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Emily Lloyd-Saini as Helen , Michael Grady-Hall as the older Jack , Kelly Gough as the older Agnes, Daniel Millar as Eddie , Anne-Marie Duff as Constance and Stuart McQuarrie. as Alistair Credit: Helen Murray
Anne-Marie Duff as the younger Constance and Carol Macready as the older Constance Credit: Helen Murray
Stuart McQuarrie as Alistair and Anne-Marie Duff as Constance Credit: Helen Murray

Beth Steel’s play explores how the personal actions of four generations of one family between 1965 and 2019 contribute to and mirror the shift in society to a more self-centred individualism and a less collectively safe working-class community.

It opens on a small, barely lit room in 1965 where an older woman is washing the dead body of a man. He is the father of Constance, who recalls him beating her with a belt. She would escape his harsh treatment into the dream of becoming a singer, a dream encouraged by a man who went away leaving her to marry Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie), a union committeeman she doesn't really care for, and become the mother of three children, Agnes (Issie Riley), Jack (Gus Barry) and Laura.

When Laura (Emma Shipp), who is said to have ‘learning difficulties’, becomes pregnant, Constance secretly attempts to abort it, a selfish decision which will haunt the family, including the young Jack who accidentally is the only family member who realises what his mother is doing.

He, like his mother, takes the path of self-interest and years later announces that he (Michael Grady-Hall as the older Jack) will break a strike, start his own business and have a long-term relationship with the Tory Helen (Emily Lloyd-Saini).

While he builds his business empire, giving his support to Blair’s New Labour government, the community beyond is increasingly fragmented. By 2019, he employs four thousand but is separated from his partner and has lost contact with the remains of his family till one day, Natalie (Issie Riley), the daughter of his sister Agnes, arrives to tell him his sister is dead and that she can't afford the funeral, something he refuses to help with.

She explains that she earns, “six pounds seventy an hour. I get forty hours one week and a text message giving me ten hours the next.” It leaves her worrying about paying the bills and eating. She points out that many of the surviving firms like his simply employ cheap foreign workers, and then she shocks him by saying she will be voting Tory.

Although the play’s perspective will chime with the pessimism of many on the liberal left, its expression is marred by a number of weaknesses. The sheer range of characters, including the ghosts of family members and Nye Bevin (Mark Meadows), along with the changing family situation makes it difficult to find the play’s focus.

The cast is impressive, and Anne-Marie Duff gives a spectacular performance as the assertive, selfish, working-class mother with romantic yearnings that she sometimes expresses through song. But her leisurely conversations with ghosts and others contrast sharply with the political discussions that are so briskly rushed through, you might wonder if the director wanted to banish them completely.

This ambitious play, running at nearly three hours, never really gives us the space to see how characters beyond Constance or events in their lives develop. It is perhaps for the moment simply en route to something that will one day more clearly help us understand how we got to 2019.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna