How do you remember the piece? That huddle of four men smoking cigars at the top of Act Two? Ruth, the cool and enigmatic wife of the older son, Teddy, crossing her legs provocatively in sheer stockings? The sudden collapse of mild-mannered Uncle Sam, the cab driver, and Teddy’s “I was going to ask him to drive me to London Airport”?
Ever since Peter Hall’s monumental, all-grey premiere at the RSC, brown and sepia – the designer here is Jonathan Fensom -- have been creeping into the North London household where the barbaric retired butcher Max (Kenneth Cranham) holds cruel sway over his sons Lenny the pimp (Nigel Lindsay) and Joey the boxer (Danny Dyer), with Sam (Anthony O’Donnell) pottering about in the background soaking up insults.
When Teddy (Neil Dudgeon), a doctor of philosophy, calls by with Ruth (Jenny Jules) on his way back to America, the uneasy atmosphere of recrimination and bullying is re-channelled into a game of sexual manoeuvres, activated once more by the presence of a woman in the company of men. Is Ruth “empowered” by the process or demeaned by Lenny’s project of setting her up “in business” in Greek Street?
In casting svelte but stern Jenny Jules in the role, director Michael Attenborough underlines the impossibility of knowing the answer. As a black actress, Jules exerts a curious moral advantage over the men’s point-scoring bluster, while her innate charm and serenity are by no means conclusive indicators of what she will do.
What people do is anyway less important than what people say, and the breathtaking shifts of gear in the dialogue, its spring, rhythm and idiomatic bravura, all are perfectly captured in the almost deliriously brisk playing of Attenborough’s fine cast. The smiling, vicious Lenny and the dumb but watchful Joey are beautifully re-thought performances by Lindsay and Dyer.
But the real motor here is Kenneth Cranham’s vigorous, light-on-his-feet Max. Cranham can switch between blood-vessel-bursting anger to a sort of second diapason of emollient sarcasm within a single speech. He sets the tone, and lowers it, with every phrase he utters, and his protestation that there’s not been a whore in this house since the boys’ mother died comes across with a full blast of hilarious, unintentional ambiguity.
Anthony O'Donnell is no less superb as an intimidated, round little Sam, suggesting a world of kindness and affection that has been swept under the carpet since his sister-in-law died. He probably swept it there in his suit and apron, but at least he can escape the grim reality in the comfort zone of his Humber Super Snipe. Or he could, until the play’s climax.
- Michael Coveney