In Flame at the New Ambassadors Theatre
There are skeletons in the closet and ghosts lurking within walls in Charlotte Jones's serio-comic drama In Flame, which has returned to the London stage after packing in the crowds at the Bush Theatre earlier this year.
The skeletons in question are hidden within the family history of a thirty-something Londoner, Alex (Kerry Fox) who wishes to know more about her forebears after discovering some faded snapshots at the home of her mother Annie, now a patient at a mental hospital.
Rather than merely look through a window to the past, Jones (like novelist Kurt Vonnegut) shows how past co-exists with present. So two separate narratives are interwoven: the lives of clairvoyant Clara (Rosie Cavaliero) her sister Livvy (Emma Dewhurst) and 'Gramma' (Marcia Warren) living in rural turn-of-the-century Yorkshire, and those of Annie, Alex, and flatmate Clootie in contemporary London - and in the process some interesting parallels are drawn.
For one thing, little seems to have changed down the years as far as the predicament of women are concerned. In both eras, they fall victim to men who are duplicitous fornicators (namely, the silky-tongued Frank and his modern-day counterpart Mat) and are literally left holding the baby. Here, certainly, Alex and great-great-aunt Livvy are linked by a common thread.
However, if there's one thing that strikes me about Jones's play - and you can accuse me of being biased here - it's that the males seem to come off rather badly. They're represented either as testosterone-fuelled sex machines with an eye for the main chance, or feckless wimps like male nurse James (Jason Hughes) and his predecessor Arthur.
What is appealing though, is the way In Flame gradually reveals how certain characteristics, even subtle ones, are inherited inter-generationally. Frank (Ivan Kaye) passes on his map-making skills to Alex, and oddball Clara hands down some of her madness to Annie (also played by Warren).
Although the tone of the play often tends towards the spiritual and ethereal (aided by Tom Pye's minimalist stage design), there are some rip-roaringly funny moments that break through from time to time. Marcia Warren's fantasy tap-dance routine to the strains of Lerner and Loewe, and Ivan Kaye's courtship dance spring to mind particularly.
The cast of six double up on their roles to play characters from both periods, and director Anna Mackmin ensures they manage to slip from one part to the next smoothly as the story weaves its way back and forth in time and place.
In all, it makes for a highly imaginative, skillfully crafted piece of entertainment. I'd say In Flame looks certain to set West End audiences alight.