The final production in the Royal Court’s Wallace Shawn season opened in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs this week (See Today's 1st Night Photos), a revival of Shawn's 1985 play Aunt Dan and Lemon.

It marks a homecoming for the work, which received its world premiere at the Court back in 1985 under the directorship of Max Stafford-Clark (with Shawn himself in the cast). This time round, Dominic Cooke is at the helm and the cast is led by Lorraine Ashbourne and Jane Horrocks as the eponymous pair.

We all remember a favourite aunty, uncle or grandparent, someone who, in our childhood, told us tales that made our toes curl and stories of wonder. For Lemon, it was Aunt Dan. A brilliant, intoxicating but dangerous woman who shared all the most intimate and daring secrets of her decadent, exotic adult world...

Like Grasses of a Thousand Colours before it, Aunt Dan and Lemon ran the gamut of critical opinion from raves to outright scorn. Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney was very much in the positive corner, deeming Horrocks' performance as Lemon “perfect” and hailing the playwright a “stylistic master of dramatic casuistry”. In the negative corner was the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer, who dismissed the whole Shawn season as “ill-advised”. The Guardian's Michael Billington was on the fence, concluding that the play is “as sensually beguiling as it is intellectually frustrating”.


  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “What’s great about Shawn is that he can propose these ideas in the voice of a character you may dislike, yet he touches on a nerve in the liberal conscience without sounding loud or stupid; he’s a stylistic master of dramatic casuistry … Horrocks is perfect in this role, combining a confidential bedside manner with childish innocence, and she’s technically brilliant, while Ashbourne’s Dan is far fruitier and more sensual than Linda Hunt’s sinister little freak in the original. Good cameos, too, from Paul Chahidi as Lemon’s brutishly Anglophile father, Mary Roscoe as her liberally incoherent mother and Scarlett Johnson as a sexy, vengeful lesbian.”

  • Benedict Nightingale on The Times (four stars) - “I’d forgotten how Aunt Dan starts by filling the 11-year-old Lemon with memories of her own louche past, recalling adulteries, orgies, even a murder committed by a woman she admires for her blithe amorality, the Sloane played by a scarily scornful, sensuous Scarlett Johnson. There’s a faint hint of homophobia in the picture, but that doesn’t date the conclusion of what’s still one of Shawn’s more arresting, disturbing plays: that child abuse can take dangerously subtle forms.”

  • Henry Hitchings on Evening Standard (two stars) - “In the central role of Lemon, Jane Horrocks is impressive. She switches deftly between the comic and the pathetic, adopting an array of tones: conspiratorial, steely, preacherly, wide-eyed. As the supposedly compelling Aunt Dan, Lorraine Ashbourne is too strident but the smaller roles in the flashbacks are sharply directed by Dominic Cooke and solidly acted: Paul Chahidi and Martin McDougall catch the eye, while Scarlett Johnson relishes her turn as a ruthless seductress. Still, this is a bizarre and unsatisfying play. Shawn deliberately offers little in the way of either story or closure. He wants before all else to challenge the audience’s apathy. He may succeed in this but his writing is structurally frustrating and rhetorically overbearing. Aunt Dan and Lemon will make audiences squirm - and not always for the reasons intended.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “Through the distorting lens of Lemon's memory, Shawn touches on resonant themes: the dependence of bourgeois comfort on third world hardship, and our voyeuristic fascination with evil. This is shown in a noirish interlude where we see one of Aunt Dan's lowlife chums … It reminds us that Aunt Dan herself is essentially a literary creation: an improbable mix of academic star, bisexual spellbinder, Kissinger advocate and gangsters' moll. I also question Shawn's premise of liberal passivity ... Dominic Cooke's production exerts a strong grip … Jane Horrocks' Lemon has exactly the right blend of infantile wonderment and crabbed, late-20s solitude … Lorraine Ashbourne invests her with a spurious glamour and emphatic intolerance. Scarlett Johnson as the murderous Mindy, and Paul Chahidi and Mary Roscoe as Lemon's fractious parents, lend weight to an evening that is as sensually beguiling as it is intellectually frustrating.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) - “Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985) is the final work (thank God) in the Royal Court’s ill-advised Wallace Shawn season, merely uses Nazism to titillate the audience - and playing theatrical tricks with the Holocaust strikes me as disgusting … Shawn, a mixture of mischievous Puck and tiresome left-wing moraliser, implies that America is almost as evil as the Third Reich and forcefully prods his audience into spasms of liberal guilt. There are witty, darkly sexy moments in Dominic Cooke's production, but, after three profoundly silly plays in succession, Shawn has definitely delighted us long enough.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (one star) - “Like all of Shawn's 'characters' - that may be too generous a term - she is an opinionated bore who repeats each banal opinion on average five times, often using the same words … My problem is that Shawn is incapable of putting a conflict of ideas into dramatic form. He is not particularly interested in character, has no ear for language (he thinks that the British refer to Americans as 'Yankees'), and cannot write an eloquent theatrical speech to save his life. Director Dominic Cooke does his best to imbue the production with atmosphere, with shadowy memory-figures haunting the set and lots of incidental music. Horrocks, in her poshest, most mannered voice, gives Lemon a brittle callousness, but the loud, exuberant Ashbourne still cannot make Dan the vibrant figure that Shawn wants her to be. My companion gave me a hard kick after an hour, as a rebuke for inflicting this excruciating bilge on him. I'm tempted to sue the Royal Court for the damage to my shin.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet & Laura Garriga 

    ** DON'T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to Aunt Dan and Lemon on 3 June 2009 including a FREE drink and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A - Click here for details! **