|Samuel West in The Family Renuion|
Review Round-up: Donmar Hosts Happy Renuion
Date: 28 November 2008
The Donmar’s revival of TS Eliot’s rarely-performed verse drama The Family Reunion opened this week (25 November 2008, previews from 20 November), forming the centrepiece of the Donmar’s TS Eliot festival (See News, 18 Jul 2008).
After eight years absence, Harry returns to the ancestral home to celebrate his mother's birthday. Tormented by a dark secret, he confides in Aunt Agatha only to discover that the family too have its own hidden demons.
Directed by Jeremy Herrin, The Family Reunion features a stellar cast including Penelope Wilton (Aunt Agatha), Samuel West (Harry), Anna Carteret, William Gaunt, Una Stubbs, Hattie Morahan and Gemma Jones. It continues until 10 January 2009.
The overnight critics were warm in their reception of Herrin's "thrillingly assured revival" of Eliot’s “infuriating modern masterpiece”. West’s “tormented” Harry and Wilton’s “seductively inscrutable” Agatha led an “impeccable” cast, and despite one assessment of the text as “a curio that isn't likely to re-enter the repertoire”, it nevertheless provided most critics with an ample reminder of Eliot’s abundant talents. Special mention too went to Bunny Christie's ambitious country house set, “exquisitely lit” by Rick Fisher.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Eliot himself thought that Harry was an insufferable prig, but West makes something really moving of his insistence that he is living a nightmare and that the rest of the family is weighed down with the triviality of everyday life. But his mother Amy, Lady Monchesney, is similarly afflicted with grief when it emerges that her husband was plotting to kill her while carrying on an affair with her sister, Agatha. Amy and Agatha, played respectively by a red-eyed, tremulous Gemma Jones and a chilling, uncompromised Penelope Wilton, bring a great undertow of anger and sadness to the play … Bunny Christie’s set, lit with magical harshness by Rick Fisher, is a high panelled mansion with broken windows and secret doorways, a grim kingdom of wasted lives and dreams … The Donmar has reiterated what the RSC revealed nine years ago in Adrian Noble’s revival: the play’s an infuriating modern masterpiece.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (three stars) - “Mesmeric and sometimes maddening, it draws on classical tragedy to explore existential crisis. And while Eliot’s slow deliberation and dense poetry veer between hypnotic and soporific, Jeremy Herrin’s production is absorbingly atmospheric and acted with such intensity that it conjures a quiet horror … West makes Eliot’s tormented, occasionally hectoring Harry rivetingly watchable, showing us not just the suffering man but the bewildered child who never felt quite able to fulfil the expectations of his emotionally exigeant mama … Amid the anguish and the ghostly visitations, though, there is wit, a tinkling socially comic counterpoint to the drama’s broken glass. In particular, Una Stubbs as Harry’s Aunt Ivy is daintily delicious, bemused by the strange events and far less interested in probing their mysteries than in sampling Amy’s birthday cake. The play’s evocation of a world beyond our own is fascinating. It’s worth enduring the longueurs.”
Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “Jeremy Herrin's thrillingly assured revival could scarcely better argue the case for Eliot's hard-edged drama to be recognised as a jewel of the pre-war theatrical canon. Although borrowing the robes of country house drama and classical Greek tragedy, it's far from fusty and moth-eaten. The use of language remains bracingly experimental - ranging from amusingly stiff drawing-room chatter, past staccato choric outbursts, into realms of high-flown abstraction … The ensemble playing is uniformly excellent, down to the three deathly pale little boys who burst into view as the avenging furies, creepily brandishing butterfly nets. Gemma Jones is on spectral and formidable form as the indomitable matriarchal Amy. Penelope Wilton brings a calm watchfulness and sorrowful sagacity to the role of Agatha, who is handmaiden to her nephew's rapt, rhapsodic self-expiation. Una Stubbs excels as Ivy, the dottier of his aunts, and William Gaunt lends his starchy uncle Charles a wonderful unblinking bafflement, like some dead-eyed moose-head in a forgotten baronial corridor.”
Maddy Costa in the Guardian (three stars) - “This isn't one play but three - an intense revenge drama taking in Greek tragedy, a conventional potboiler and a satire on mid-20th-century country-house drama … One of its characters, Violet, ceaselessly proclaims her inability to understand a word that anyone is saying, a feeling some of the audience might share. Yet this is a play written for a West End audience, and beneath myriad obfuscations lies a discernible, if not quite gripping, plot … The Family Reunion isn't easy to play, but Jeremy Herrin's cast is impeccable. Una Stubbs' twittering Ivy and Anna Carteret's opinionated Violet are perfectly unbearable; Penelope Wilton's Agatha is seductively inscrutable. In the past, reviewers have thought Harry a prig, but in Samuel West's performance he is a sympathetically tormented soul searching for peace. Ultimately, the play is a curio that isn't likely to re-enter the repertoire - but one that leaves you more in awe of Eliot the poet than ever.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “The Donmar launches its TS Eliot season by reminding us what a magical, entrancing experience The Family Reunion can be, even in an emotionally under-powered production such as this by Jeremy Herrin … West’s Eliot-like Harry goes through a form of expiation, but too often appears glacially perplexed rather than tormented. Only when the Furies, whose fearful form has been brilliantly reinvented by Herrin as childhood revenants, rise up before him does he lose his cool to useful effect. Miss Wilton’s spell-binding performance as the voluptuous, anguished Aunt Agatha, opens the door to the family’s secret and so liberates Harry from the family’s curse. She alone takes The Family Reunion to its thrilling, high plane of metaphysical mystery.”
- by Theo Bosanquet
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