Linda (Royal Court)

Olivier award-winner Noma Dumezweni takes the title role in Penelope Skinner’s new play

Noma Dumezweni (Linda) and Imogen Byron (Bridget)
Noma Dumezweni (Linda) and Imogen Byron (Bridget)
© Johan Persson

Less than two weeks after Kim Cattrall left the cast of Linda on her doctors’ advice, RSC associate (and indeed board member), and Olivier award-winner Noma Dumezweni has heroically stepped into the title role of Penelope Skinner‘s new play and saved the day.

She acts the part, script-in-hand, of a 55 year-old high-flying executive at the Swan Beauty Corporation, purveyor of beauty products to the younger mass market, determined to solve the age gap problem in female beauty perceptions ("Helen Mirren is the only older woman allowed to exist") while coping with a tricky family situation and threats to her professional status as she glides by her own sell-by date.

So, we have Linda – ie, Leda – and the Swan, the former consumed by the latter, not the other, mythical way round. And the point of "growing up" as an object of sexual focus is ironically made by the title song, played at the start of the second act, written in 1946 in innocent/creepy admiration for a one year-old Linda McCartney.

Linda’s husband, Neil (Dominic Mafham) is having an affair with the girl singer Stevie (Merriel Plummer) in his rock band – he’s a teacher – while her 25 year-old daughter Alice (Karla Crome) is dealing with sexual harassment fantasies by wearing a skunk onesie 24/7 and 15 year-old Bridget (Imogen Byron), her daughter with Neil, is auditioning for a theatre club with a speech from King Lear as a protest at "too few roles for women."

Despite the modish predictability of all this, Skinner is plumbing an authentic subject in the representation, and sexualisation, of women in a superficial, appearance-obsessed society. Linda’s nemesis is the hilariously placid but scheming new girl in the company, the air-headed, pleat-skirted blonde Amy (Amy Beth Hayes) who bets an equally repellent colleague, the laid-back numskull Luke (Jaz Deol), full of garbage about some post-hippie utopia on Bali, that he can’t seduce the "older" woman.

The glib dazzle of the market fuelled by Swan and such companies is fully evoked in Es Devlin‘s spectacularly symptomatic, revolving, split-level white and glass set – the old Royal Court design aesthetic is truly dead and gone – which must have cost a fortune and serves equally well as Linda’s fortified battlefield at home and at work.

Suitably enough, the climax of the play, an apocalyptic melt-down taking its cue from Lear’s storm scene enacted by Bridget in a risible grey wig, is cosmetically manufactured, and a bit of a cringe-inducing cop out.

This does not prevent the play landing with unabated comic force most of the time, despite the inevitable hiccups of a half-achieved (at the moment) central performance; miraculously, Dumezweni makes most of her scenes work through pluck and naked technique. Respect, indeed. But this is obviously a perfect bespoke role for Kim "Cougar" Cattrall, and I hope she plays it before too long.

Linda runs at the Royal Court until 9 January 2016