Family divisions and secrets over half a century
“Cruelty is the difference between what you imagine and what is really there. ”
Beth Steel’s family saga spans the years 1965 to 2019 of a working class family living in a street where every family bar one votes Labour. In October 1964 Harold Wilson won the election with a tiny majority of 4 seats. The 1966 election saw the Labour majority increased. The Labour government lasted until 1970 when the Conservatives won under Ted Heath. Labour returned to power in 1974 first under Wilson and later James Callaghan until 1979 when Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party were re-elected.
The play opens with a neighbour (Beatie Edney) laying out the body of a man (Mark Meadows) washing his limbs and preparing him for the undertakers. So at the beginning we are conscious of death and its inevitability.
Anne-Marie Duff plays the matriarch of the family over half a century. She has born three children with the youngest Laura (Emma Shipp) still at school. Her husband Alistair is a trade union shop steward and tells us that in 1965 half the working population are in a trade union. In 2017 this percentage had fallen by more than half to 23.3%. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher has demolished trade union power with legislation against secondary picketing and the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984/5.
Beth Steel’s play is about family trauma, secrets and divisions only some of which I am allowed to go into. These are the shades of the title. The political divisions are caused by Jack (Michael Grady-Hall) who in the 1960s declares himself a communist but who by 1979 is swayed by his Tory girlfriend and Thatcher fan, Helen (Emily Lloyd-Saini) towards the right. As an adult his employment success as a self-made man influences his political choices.
The family divisions are there in every generation. Constance’s mother Edith (Carol Macready) is a widow and worships the memory of her husband by cradling his overcoat, whom Constance remembers as a cruel man who abused her physically by beating her with the metal buckle of a leather belt. She throws the precious coat on the floor and stamps on it. Edith tries to get Jack to wear the coat but as it symbolises everything Constance resents, she tells them to take it off. The imagery reminded me about the play when the overcoat is an honoured dinner guest but here the coat is remembered pain.
Constance hasn’t just been abused by her father. Passing the 11 plus, she wasn’t allowed to go to the grammar school because he refused to pay for the uniform. Edith says they couldn’t afford it. Constance says he had money for beer and cigarettes. So she has a life of restrictions and denied promise, projecting her resentment of her father on to her husband.
Agnes (Kelly Gough) identifies with her father Alistair and fights with Jack who is his mother’s boy. Stuart and Constance spend much of the play arguing or not speaking to each other. Constance says to Agnes, “Ask your father how many rashers of bacon, he wants?” Constance dreams of being a night club singer and breaking free from her life of toil. She is happiest relating to Hollywood film stars like Bette Davies.
There is an audible gasp in the much shorter second act as one secret is revealed, one that has hung over this family for years. The first act is one hour 50 minutes long and quite dense with wordy debate. In the 70s Constance has met an impresario (Mark Meadows) whom she hopes will launch her singing career. Towards the end of her life, Constance is in a hospital bed played by Carol Macready.
Anna Fleischle’s set has a backdrop of old industrial factory wall and in front is a 1960s kitchen and kitchen table. Constance’s dressed up scenes are excitingly lit to highlight her spangles and glittering frock.
Blanche McIntyre is an exciting director and Beth Steel’s slow burn play will set your mind whirring with its interrelated themes of family priorities. The ensemble performances are sound but Anne-Marie Duff’s portrayal of Constance doesn’t shy away from the unpalatable. Although the play ends on a note that family are important, what has gone before is schism. This is the play all America needs to see.
The House of Shades
Written by Beth Steel
Directed by Blanche McIntyre
Director: Blanche McIntyre
Set Designer: Anna Fleischle
Costume Designer: Liam Bunster
Movement and Intimacy Design:
Lighting Designer: Richard Howell
Sound Designer: Gregory Clarke
Video Design: Isaac Madge
Fight Director: Kevin McCurdy
Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes with an interval
Booking to 18th June 2022
London N1 1TA
Phone: 020 7359 4404
Tube: The Angel
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the
at the Almeida
at the evening performance
on 21st May 2022