Beth Steel’s ambitious new play follows the Webster family over decades, with Duff as a thwarted singer
This is an intergenerational family drama, inspired by Greek myth, with a radical revisionism at its core. The ancient royals are replaced by working-class characters in Nottinghamshire and the play stretches across more than half a century in the lives of the Webster brood, whose trajectories we follow from 1965 to 2019.
Beth Steel’s large canvas reflects brawny ambition and magnificent fearlessness as the dead walk alongside the living and the surreal interrupts the real. It is a kitchen-sink drama that incorporates state-of-the-nation politics, and the generational damage within family life is shown largely through its women.
Directed by Blanche McIntyre, the play emanates a retro sitcom vibe at the start but detours into Dennis Potter territory, with hallucinatory scenes, seductive and dreamlike, often with song.
Constance, played with grit and charisma by Anne-Marie Duff, is the fiercest of matriarchs – a toxic force in the family and the most magnetic character on stage. A thwarted singer who finds herself in the wrong marriage to placid Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie), she displays selfishness and cruelty but keeps hold of our compassion, too. Duff does Constance justice, singing exquisitely, quoting Bette Davis with a swagger or slink, and talking with a yearning ache of what could have been if she had been sent to the local grammar. A woman with a great reservoir of anger, she reflects on the grinding job of being mother and wife: “I didn’t want to clean this house. I wanted to smash it.”
The others seem shrunken in comparison to Constance. Kelly Gough, who plays her quietly sacrificial daughter, Agnes, puts in a strong performance. Carol MacReady, as Constance’s mother, Edith, comes into her own in one quietly pained monologue but struggles with the Nottinghamshire accent and the character is a generic elderly figure in an armchair.
Politically, the play has an almost uncanny resonance to contemporary world politics, from Roe v Wade in its plot line on abortion to the “toilet birth” scandal at Sports Direct (which is never named). Steel seems intent on taking risks and they can pay off with an astonishing power, such as when Alistair rises out of his body bag to have the father-son reckoning with Jack (Michael Grady-Hall) that they never had in real life. In one hair-raising moment, Constance’s hospital bed is shaken by the ghost of her youngest child Laura (Emma Shipp, a constant haunting in the play). In its main, gripping storyline of mothers, daughters and working-class womanhood, its horror and guilt carry echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Every scene with Constance at its centre brings a gale force of emotion. Other episodes are less convincing, like Aneurin Bevan’s visit to Alistair in his garden to talk politics. A puckish neighbour (Beatie Edney), laying out bodies and reflecting on our relationship to mortality, becomes a fabulous twist on the Greek chorus but it is confusing when this character doubles up to address the audience in the same style as the neighbour but now a loan shark. The play travels though such a large span of time that some characters feel skimpy such as Helen (Emily Lloyd-Saini), a Tory who marries Jack and creates fissures within this staunchly Labour-voting family, but whose presence is not divisive enough.
While the script is strong, its realisation is bumpy, with uneven pacing and some scenes that are a little too short to hold potency. Actors double up down the ages to good effect, and there is further doubling on stage as characters from the past feature in parallel with their elder counterparts. This adds to the play’s haunting effects but the set begins to look squashed and it seems as if the drama is pushing at the sides of the stage to come into life more fully. Anna Fleischle’s set is flexible nonetheless, switching between different dimensions of time and reality.
Despite its inconsistencies, The House of Shades contains nuggets of greatness. An enormous endeavour, it shows Steel is one of our most audacious playwrights.
At the Almeida, London, until 18 June.