There may be an odd kind of celebration suggested in the title of The Anniversary as a mother gathers her three adult sons around her to bizarrely celebrate what would have been the 40th year of her marriage to their father, except that he has long ago died.
But the toast I want to raise is to the inimitable talents of the wonderful Sheila Hancock, whose own history with Bill MacIlwraith’s comedy goes back nearly 40 years itself. She was in the play’s original West End run in 1966, and subsequently appeared in the film version made two years later (opposite Bette Davis as the mother), playing the role of Karen, the wife of son Terry.
Now Hancock has, in the fifth decade and counting of her own career, graduated gloriously to the role of this gloriously untethered mother-in-law from hell. And now, having seen the part from both sides – as a victim of that woman’s bullying who makes a concerted stand against her as the daughter-in-law, and now as the mother – Hancock is perfectly equipped to offer a ferocious, blazingly funny portrait of this tragi-comic grotesque.
A brutally bullying woman who will stop at nothing to maintain her control over her brood – whether suddenly inventing car crashes or emotionally blackmailing them with memories of childhood accidents – Mum’s truly what my American friends sometimes refer to as “a piece of work”. But Hancock also allows you to glimpse the human vulnerability beneath the barrage of insults she casually dispenses to anyone who dares to cross her path or stand in her way.
In the midst of the grimly funny comedy of embarrassment that arises out of her formidable social ill-manners, Denis Lawson’s production (redirected for the West End by Jonathan Munby) also meticulously summons the period it’s set in, much aided by Robin Don’s appropriately hideous lounge set and costumes.
Though Hancock’s Mum is the eye of the storm and everyone visibly wilts in her presence, the situation is also touchingly animated by Tony Maudsley as the cross-dressing son Henry, Liam Garrigan and Madeleine Worrall as fresh-faced fiancés whose wedding plans throw down their own particular gauntlet, and John Marquez and Rosie Cavaliero as a couple with five kids whose only hope of escape from Mum’s clutches is to emigrate to Canada.