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Equally Divided (Watford, Palace Theatre)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Money may make the world turn around more smoothly on its axis but it can create an avalanche of jagged emotions within a family. Take the two sisters in Ronald Harwood's 1998 comedy – though tragicomedy might be a fairer description. Their parents were refugees from Hitler's Europe but are now dead, their mother only recently. They appear to be joint inheritrices, though their life patterns have diverged extraordinarily.

The sister we meet first is frumpy Edith, the stay-at-home daughter – home being a south-coast house made out of old railway carriages. She has been her mother's companion and, latterly, her carer. Renata flew the nest early on, has made wealthy marriages (and even more lucrative divorce settlements); she simply came for the funeral and the reading of the will. That vital document is in the care of the family solicitor Charles, a widower with an attention-span strongly resembling cotton-wool.

Laughs there are a-plenty, but the underlying dilemmas for all three – and for the actor-turned-antique-dealer invited by Edith to give an independent valuation – are serious enough. We all know carer-daughters who somehow miss out on the lives their siblings enjoy. Some of us have had dealings with solicitors whose mental world seems so far removed from that of their clients that you wonder how they ever managed to pass the Law Society's examinations. And, as for the antiques expert...

Brigid Larmour's production gives a fair crack of the theatrical whip to each character in turn. Beverley Klein's Edith dominates – and you end up being completely on her side, though her two monologues do tend to be over-stretched out. But it's a rounded portrait of someone who, both in real life and onstage, can be treated as someone easily passed over and ignored. Katharine Rogers has the right sort of spiky elegance as Renata, a worldly woman who knows her rights – and can judge a man (any man) in an instance.

If Charles bumbles and fumbles, and Walter van Dyk certainly makes him the epitome of that, then Gregory Gudgeon as Fabian is Lovejoy with quotes, spouting verse at the drop of a cue in between checking makers' marks on anything from a Hepplewhite table to a coffee pot or enamelled miniature. Gudgeon has in many ways the easiest part; you know from the beginning that Fabian is a rogue, but you warm to his own enjoyment of his preposterous personality.

The set by Ruari Murchison is long, low and narrow. It suggests its inhabitants' ability to combine a degree of improvisation and making-do with an all-important gemütlich. Now what was a home with comforts has become a prison, for Edith at any rate. Harwood leaves us guessing as to how she will escape, if she does. We are, after all, in 1997, which was supposed to mark the start of a brave new world. I wonder what happened to it.


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