Mike Leigh’s work is never cosy and comfortable and this is no exception. He has the knack of lulling you into a false sense of security, laughing at his ever so real characters, before shocking, horrifying and shaming you into sympathy with (most of) them. It’s not a fun night out, but one you can’t help admiring.
Ecstasy takes place in Jean’s bedsit in Kilburn around the time the 70′s become the 80′s. Her friend Dawn is encouraging her to go out and have fun. Unbeknown to her, she’s a lonely alcoholic being abused (again?) by a casual sexual partner. After a short first act, the second is a continuous 100 minutes of post-pub revelry with Dawn and her husband Mick and mutual acquaintance Len. Of course, it all ends in tears.
The main reason for seeing this play is a set of outstanding performances. Stepping into the shoes of original cast members like Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea must be tough, but they all make the roles their own. Sian Brooke has the most difficult role and her journey from fear and repressed emotion to moving confession is extraordinary. I thought Sinead Matthews over-acted in The Glass Menagerie at the Young Vic last year, but here she gets the loud grotesque Dawn spot on, with some superb physical acting. If one of those slips of paper that fall out of programmes hadn’t, you would never have known Jack Bennett was the understudy for Len – a terrific performance. It is to Daniel Coonan’s credit that you positively detest Roy, Jean’s abuser. Allen Leech is good as Mick, as is Clare Louise-Cordwell in the small part of Val, Roy’s wife.
Alison Chitty’s cramped bedsit looks lost, even on the Duchess’ small stage, but provides a suitably claustrophobic performance space with excellent period detail. Leigh’s direction is of course masterly.
It is a bit overlong, but in a way that’s why it has such impact when it slaps you in the face – life is full of dull moments before the high’s and low’s turn up. We’re also more used to this kind of gritty realism today, so it’s less shocking and ground-breaking than it no doubt was in 1979 (or when I first saw it in the early 90′s in a revival at the New End in Hampstead).
It’s good to see serious stuff like this make it to the West End and do well. As I said, not an easy ride, but one I’m very glad I took.
- Gareth James
17 May 11
Wouldn't recommend this to somebody who was feeling a bit low!! It is however a grimly brilliant dissection of hopeless urban lives and loneliness. It is extraordinary how the minutae of an ordinary existence can become so compelling, and there are, as always with Mike Leigh's best work, some wonderful belly laughs. Cannot praise the cast highly enough: all of them give committed, fearless, truthful performances entirely without vanity. Quite extraordinary. Sian Brooke is hearbreaking, and Sinead Matthews sensational, but it is an amazing ensemble effort. Highly recommended. - ajh
04 May 11
Absolutely stunning. Detailed, touching and absorbing. Leighs skill is definitely in the detail, in more mundane hands this play could be dragging and repetitive but I was absolutely captivated. The cast are incredible, each actor gives an incredibly nuanced performance and as an ensemblr they are first rate. Finally a west end show worth paying all that money for! - The man
23 Apr 11
The characters in this play are the most unique and real as any I have ever seen. The entire ensemble is excellent, and I feel in love with Sinead Matthew's Dawn (in spite of the fact she pilfers from C and A) even as my heart reached out to Sian Brooke's long-suffering Jean. The depiction of such convincing numbness and loneliness I have rarely ever seen. These characters may be ordinary but they are unforgettable. As boring as his character obviously is, Craig Parkinson makes Len seem both tremendously rousing (singing his rude song) as well as a possible Christlike saviour for Jean. I didn't like the casual racism, even if it perfectly reflects it's period, but overall I feel Mike Leigh is a genius of the everyday! - Steve
03 Apr 11
As you enter the theatre there is a warning about smoking in Ecstasy (it's virtually non-stop), but perhaps they should also add that you are about to be subjected to nearly three hours of abject misery with the added misfortune of a couple of very broad Brummie accents. Ecstasy is actually billed as a comedy and although there are certainly funny moments the overwhelming impression is of the poverty, loneliness and simmering violence of the lives of the characters. My main problem is that Mike Leigh appears to be patronising these people and there is a prevailing feeling of contempt for these wasted lives (in two senses of the word). The acting is superb, particularly from Craig Parkinson as the only character with some vestige of humanity, and Sian Brooke who is remarkable as the self-destructive Jean. Mike Leigh devotees, and this seems to include most of the critics, will love this play but it makes for very uncomfortable viewing. - David Baxter
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