Samuel Adamson’s new play is set on the Kent coast in 1955, quite specifically, says the author in a programme note, a few days before Anthony Eden’s election, a few months before “Rock Around the Clock” and a year before the Suez crisis.
The play itself name-checks National Service, television programmes of the day, the poetry of Robert Browning and T S Eliot, King Lear, the watery suicide of Virginia Woolf, the aftermath of war and the new hope in the New Look, the idealism in the stainless steel kitchen, the immigration of West Indians and their new place in Notting Hill and the health service.
In the middle of all this, Mrs Affleck herself, Rita, played with shattering iciness by Claire Skinner, is beating herself up over a disintegrating marriage to a seriously disturbed war veteran and blocked writer, Alfred Affleck (Angus Wright), a situation triggered by the death of their crippled son Oliver (Wesley Nelson shares the role with Alfie Field).
Here is the outline of Adamson’s source, Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. He has not translated the play, but grafted his own new one onto it, with additions of Oliver’s young black playmate George Constantine (Omar Brown shares this role with Rene Gray) and George’s mother, the nurse Sophia (Sarah Niles). Ibsen’s Rat Wife is remoulded as a sort of hopelessly unconvincing teddy boy rat-catcher called Flea (Josef Altin) who lures Oliver to his...what? Salvation?
Rita and Alfred can no longer make mad passionate love as they once did. They are destroyed by their own son’s illness and demise. But in Marianne Elliott’s cruel, cold production, Wright’s Alfred is also an emotionally deficient character referred to as “Casaubon” (the bleak pedant in George Eliot’s Middlemarch) locked in a more sinister relationship with his own half-sister -- as in the Ibsen play – Audrey (the ever delightful Naomi Frederick), a teacher.
Adamson and Elliott combined brilliantly on Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community four years ago, and you can only admire their courage and ingenuity in trying to discover a new way of expressing Ibsen’s symbolist extremism and gut-wrenching sexual truth-telling.
The end result is far less affecting than the Ibsen play, especially the brilliant Adrian Noble production of it for the RSC in 1996. Adamson eschews Ibsen’s optimistic, redemptive conclusion, suggesting that there is no satisfactory answer to the bereaved parents’ cry of how to fill their days without their child. But the production lacks the fire in its heart to make this as moving and grotesque a finale as the play outrageously demands.