Esme was played originally at the National Theatre by Judi Dench. It is Felicity Kendal’s considerable achievement to make the part resoundingly her own. Her performance is utterly captivating, going from the fluttering dominance of her post-theatre euphoria to a steely defence of her profession, financial ruin, reconciliation with the film critic and director who betrayed her daughter, and resolution to survive in art.
This is a long journey, but Hare’s play is so skilfully fashioned and interesting on a line-by-line basis that you only appreciate its architecture on the way home. For the changing mood of the times, and the characters’ fortunes, is revealed in their arguments. Amy used to express her views in a school newspaper. Her boyfriend, Dominic (Ryan Kiggell), is at first a film critic (“In my day we just watched them,” says Esme, witheringly) and newspaper diarist. He will later have made a film replete with violence, which he euphemistically calls “action.”
The richness of the play comes from this distinction between what people say and how they behave. Ironically, the actress Esme, who inhabits other people’s worlds in her profession, is revealed as a tragic role played out for real. At the crux of what happens is her volcanic relationship with Amy, winningly played by Jenna Russell as a critical friend, as well as a loyal daughter. When Amy becomes pregnant, Dominic’s behaviour does not improve. But the thunderbolt of the last act brings Esme and the adversary who finds theatre “irrelevant” much closer together.
By this time Esme has lost all her money in the Lloyd’s catastrophe following the advice of a devoted alcoholic neighbour - beautifully played almost sotto voce by Gawn Grainger - a metaphorical instance of having to live with the consequences of unconditional trust. The third act opens with Esme’s funny, bravura speech about the reality of working in a television soap opera, brilliantly delivered by Kendal, while Dominic’s career, of course, is in the ascendant.
The personal stories acquire focus and depth because of the vividly implied background. You get a sense of the moral and ethical ideologies of the 1980s, the brazen Philistinism, the contempt for seriousness in the arts, the brutality of city financial arrangements. And as a reminder of the painter husband she lost fifteen years previously – he was part of no school or movement, Esme pointedly tells Dominic – Esme’s mother-in-law (the wonderful veteran Antonia Pemberton) potters helpfully around the house until immobilised in the third act, staring pitifully and permanently out of the kitchen window. Handsomely designed by Simon Higlett, exquisitely lit by Peter Mumford, this superb play – I’d say it was a modern classic - deserves to draw the town and enrich the West End theatre list for many months.
- Michael Coveney