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Review Round-up: More Ecstasy for Mike Leigh?

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Mike Leigh returns to the Hampstead Theatre with a revival of his early comedy Ecstasy, which opened last night (15 March 2011, previews from 10 March).

The play, which was first performed at the theatre in 1979, marks not only a rare stage return for Leigh but also the first time that the theatre and filmmaker has returned to one of his works.

The cast features Sinead Matthews (who has worked with Leigh on Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky), Sian Brooke, Daniel Coonan, Claire-Louise Cordwell, Allen Leech and Craig Parkinson.

Ecstasy centres on a group of old friends who come together in a Kilburn bed-sit, with the Winter of Discontent just over and Margaret Thatcher’s regime about to transform the country. The revival is designed by Alison Chitty, with lighting by Paul Pyant and sound by John Leonard. The run, which is already nearly sold out, continues at the Hampstead until 9 April 2011.

Michael Coveney

\"Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy, the first play of his that he has returned to and directed a second time, begins and ends with a woman lying on a bed and a man sitting meekly beside her in a dingy Kilburn bedsit ... These tableaux are like paintings by Lucian Freud ... Leigh is right to be proud of this play ... In its quiet, absorbing way, it’s a masterpiece of small talk, misery and violence, and it has a most unusual structure ... Strikingly, Leigh and Chitty have used only one side of the wide Hampstead stage, and there’s an intense realism about the bedsit ... Above all, we have brilliant acting, of a density that is rare, with all the characters squashed together in a tiny space for warmth, yet finding room to fly in their own personal fashion, falling over drunk, ineffably sad, horribly real. This is a notable evening, and a notable work of art.\"

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

\"Until now Leigh has never revived any of his plays. Yet here he revisits Ecstacy, which opened at this very venue in 1979. At the time he wanted to call it One Mile Behind You; an audience sitting in Hampstead would be just a mile from the comparatively mean streets of Kilburn ... As in so much of Leigh\'s work, the emphasis is on mapping the contours of everyday events: their peaks of humour, troughs of sorrow, and swells of mundanity. Superb performances ensure that Leigh\'s minor-key characters seem colossal. Sian Brooke\'s Jean is an aching study in repressed desperation, and Craig Parkinson\'s Len a fine portrait of gentle loyalty. Allen Leech makes Mick a charismatically troublesome attention-seeker, while Sinead Matthews\' Dawn is a small galaxy of exuberance. Leigh directs with tact and wit, and, although there are a few longueurs, the production proves intimate and absorbing.\"

Michael Billington

\"Although there may be occasional longueurs, Leigh gets there in the end by offering a devastating portrait of the solitude that haunts many of the inhabitants of a teeming city like London ... Leigh\'s chosen method of creating plays through extensive rehearsal, and allowing actors to research their characters pays off handsomely ... One problem with any Leigh revival is that new actors have to inhabit characters shaped and moulded by their originators. But the current cast, under the author\'s direction, do an excellent job. Sian Brooke captures perfectly Jean\'s wan adjustment to the single life, and the misery of spending her days as a garage-cashier staring at a brick wall. Craig Parkinson also conveys the nerdy niceness of the hapless Len, and Sinead Matthews and Allen Leech as Dawn and Mick are a totally plausible married couple ... It may be a long play, but it\'s a good one.\"

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

\"Blimey, this one is punishing ... The title mischievously held out the promise of an equally good time for all. What Leigh offered instead was almost three hours of alcoholism, sexual violence and despair ... At his best, Leigh is a great artist, and even in this play, set among unskilled workers whose idea of a good time is getting comprehensively wasted, there are glimmers of generosity and grace .... Leigh’s production meticulously captures the drab late-Seventies atmosphere with a tiny, dowdy, smoke-filled bedsitting room design by Alison Chitty, complete with Baby Belling, ugly wardrobe and miserable single bed. The scene in the virtuosic second act, in which the four main characters have an impromptu post-pub sing-song, getting ever drunker as they deliver Irish ballads and naughty ditties, is superb, and the tension becomes almost unbearable ... The dialogue, originally developed through improvisation, has a wonderful smack of authenticity, and the characters come to vivid life. Sinead Matthews is hilarious as Jean’s fellow Brummie... her charming drunk of a husband, charismatically played by Allen Leech. But it is Craig Parkinson’s diffident kindness as the decent Len, all car-coat, spectacles and ponderous politeness, and the depth of Sian Brooke’s bravely concealed pain as Jean that are like a dagger in the heart. And, though the play may be bleak, it ends on a beautiful note of compassion and tentative hope.\"

Paul Taylor

\"Mike Leigh has broken the habit of a lifetime and returned to direct one of his stage plays for the second time. You can see why he has been reluctant hitherto. Given the improvisatory techniques and the exhaustive research into character that goes into the creation of a Mike Leigh piece, the original actors might be said to \'own\' the material ... Jean brightens intermittently but, as Sian Brooke\'s surely award-winning performance hauntingly intimates, she\'s now almost numbed beyond reach and she knows it. Brooke highlights how Jean\'s reactions have become a sort of heartbreaking autopilot of self-denying agreement with her interlocutors. Indeed, there\'s hardly any self left to deny. At the start, she and Daniel Coonan\'s excellent Roy are discovered naked in disconsolate post-coital mood ... Foetal on her now broken bed, Jean is left alone with Len to whom she has just revealed the desolate truth of a life of despair, casual affairs, and abortions.\"


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