Paying customers should be warned that Terry Johnson’s new play contains scenes of nudity. And of madness, music, mayhem and maternal memories; not to mention flying Spanish waiters, sibling stand-offs and set-tos, flocks of starlings and a live piano recital of music by Ravel, Rachmaninov and Chopin.
The very least you can say of it, therefore, is that it makes a change from your average run-of-the-mill Royal Court play. Johnson has always been marvellous one-off, but he is a considerable craftsman, too, and this new dramatic fandango is as strange and compelling as anything he has written to date. It is also highly entertaining.
Two sisters, Abigail and Louise, await the arrival of their father, a disgraced Tory MP, and his new fiancée, a blonde glamour model. Their mother (the MP’s first wife; the model will be his third) committed suicide. Abigail, a withdrawn agoraphobic, is tied to the household. Wild child Louise has run away from the circus. She beats down the door claiming she’s been raped then smashes a family portrait over the baronial banister of Dad’s Gothic mansion in the Home Counties.
Just as David Hare wrote the misleadingly titled Breath of Life (the one quality that play lacked) for Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, so Johnson, far more successfully, has tailored a stage suit for the talented, red-headed and convincingly sororal duet of Alicia Witt (a superb pianist) and Kelly Reilly, the one placid and deeply troubled inside (piano), the other demonstrative, neurotically brutal and emotionally florid (forte); Reilly’s Louise – a stunning, award-winning performance if ever I saw one - totes a gun, topless, mocking the new fiancee’s profession in an aggressive display of the most beautiful breasts seen on the Court’s stage since Harriet Walter’s in a Timberlake Wertenbaker play many years ago.
Oliver Cotton’s neatly inflected Clifford, the MP, has found a new life in celebrity, and work as a restaurant critic, and conveys all the supercilious immorality that familiar transition implies. Dawn, the model, beautifully and touchingly done by Natalie Walter, doesn’t want the Wedding March for the big day; she wants “that Robin Hood thing” which turns out, with splendid bathos, to be “Coming through the Glen.” This is where Louise’s old circus chums from Barcelona, the Spanish waiters (Nuria Benet and Sebastian Gonzalez) bring the first act to a riotous conclusion in an aerial pantomime featuring a very large, and shall we say “practical,” dildo.
Johnson’s shorter second act subsides into the Sam Shepard-like format of memory and recrimination implied at the start, where Danny Webb’s shifty Australian uncle, Ray, delivers a tantalising short prologue about the flocks of starlings and a couple of gunshots. There are revelations of incest, and a second, more sinister, chaotic climax that leaves Abigail alone once more, playing Ravel’s “Pavanne for a Dead Child.” Destruction and liberation are the twin polarities of the play, and mother’s locked piano is alive once more and the starlings have returned.
- Michael Coveney