16 May 2022
HOUSE OF SHADES (Almeida Theatre) Review
Without giving away the twists and turns of the play, it is a story of the Webster family between 1965 and 2019: wife Constance and husband Alistair, their 3 children (Jack, Agnes, and Laura), and Constance’s mother Edith. Although the time keeps moving forward, the play is neatly divided in two: first we watch how their lives visibly change over the years, then we get some some behind-the-scenes details for how some of those things actually came to pass. Some questions are answered in full, others are left to our imagination (albeit guided by ample hints provided by the script).
Beth Steel’s script is engaging, but not without problems. There are a couple of things that are pre-chewed and highlighted over and over to make sure the audience really gets it. The angle of politics is trite and overplayed: there are no fresh perspectives here. There are filler monologues to give the cast a chance to change costumes, but they are obviously filler, as in they don’t really add much to the story.
Blanche McIntyre’s direction, on the other hand, is inspired. There is subtlety in every bit of movement (which I’m hoping will also let some of the text get cut, as it almost becomes unnecessary) and, as the play progresses, it feels like the audience gets drawn in closer and closer. There is a lot of shouting and screaming in this play, and, whilst most of it feels genuine, a couple of those scenes could be toned down a little, as they border on overacting.
Anne-Marie Duff has an amazing stage presence in general, but she absolutely shines here. She has a strong part, of course, but what makes this performance as good as it is is Duff’s face: a smile here, a wink there. When Constance screams, “Nobody is going anywhere! There is cake…” it’s priceless and is also every family gathering I’ve ever been to. As written, Constance could quite easily be one-dimensional: straight-up bitter or resentful or drunk or slutty. It’s Duff who makes her all of those things and none of those things at the same time. Duff’s performance alone is certainly worth the admission price and then some.
Kelly Gough, who plays [adult] Agnes, nearly stole the show. Her performance was nuanced, passionate, raw. Some of her lines were eye-rollingly cringy, but she somehow made them sound genuine. I’m definitely going to look out for her in the future.
Carol Macready, as the grandmother, rubbed me the wrong way. Her character spoke with weird pauses, like little starts and stumbles. It may’ve meant to signify an elderly woman who doesn’t speak clearly anymore, but it came out as if Macready couldn’t remember her lines… She also makes an appearance later in the show as another character, and this speech pattern continued there. Emily Lloyd-Saini plays 3 roles: young Jack’s wife, hospital nurse, and old Jack’s coworker. There was not enough difference in the appearance, tone, or stage presence between the wife and the coworker (so much so that I thought the latter was still the wife and got very confused). There was no reason not to give the coworker a blonde wig and a different attitude… The nurse character was completely unnecessary (it’s pretty clear that things are happening in a hospital at that point), and I’d want to see it cut to minimise the confusion from “samey” acting here.
There are production warnings about graphic representations of certain things… Whilst they are, in fact, there, I didn’t think it was as graphic as it could’ve been. It was pretty toned down as far as these things go, so I was surprised to hear gasps from the audience.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £8.
Bonus #1: When the cast came out for curtain call at the end, Duff’s hands are dirty, and when she reached out her hand to Macready, who was standing next to her, Macready visibly eyeballed the muck and made a little “nah, you’re alright” wave with her hand. Everyone ended up holding hands when bowing except for those two. It was cute and funny.
Bonus #2: Through dumb luck I ended up sitting next to Blanche McIntyre! We ended up having a nice little chat about the themes of and inspirations for the play (which I won’t give away here), points at which certain story lines become apparent, etc. It was a fascinating conversation and made the evening that much more special.