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After Electra

by on 5 March 2018

‘There’s No Easy Way to Say This’

After Electra

by April de Angelis

Teddington Theatre Club, Hampton Hill Theatre until 10th March

Review by Matthew Grierson

Is After Electra a comedy? There are plenty of laughs, for sure, and the cast are well drilled in getting them. But to depend on this kind of delivery, as the show seems to do, is to lose sight of its drama.

 

There should be drama after all: Virgie (Fran Billington) has gathered friends and family at her coastal home not only to celebrate her 81st birthday but also to declare her intention to walk into the sea, perhaps alluding to her namesake Woolf’s suicide. Yet it is difficult to take this pronouncement seriously because none of her guests are able to treat it as such. Line readings are given as jokes rather than dialogue, and I did not always have a sense that I was watching characters having exchanges – exchanges that are often heated, teetering between the self-aggrandising and the absurd.

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Part of the problem is that Virgie and her set are naturally given to dramatics, she a painter swanning around in a fabulous gown-cum-nightdress, her friends Tom and Sonia respectively a plummy thesp and neurotic novelist, and her younger sister Shirley a member of the House of Lords. Tom especially is given to declaiming the Bard, and later reads from MacNeice’s translation of Aeschylus that gives this play its title. But even though the lounge carpet is rolled out under the first row of seating in the studio, as though the audience is among Virgie’s guests, I did not feel party to the character’s concerns, given their self-conscious performativity. Sat where I was, stage right, there were also several occasions where characters walked towards me only to turn their backs and address the rest of the room. Had they seen my notes, I wonder?

The awkward rhythm created by the cycle of lines and laughs – and don’t get me wrong, this play has very funny dialogue – means that scenes tend to conclude unexpectedly and abruptly, without dramatic pacing or impact. When Virgie’s son Orin (Jeremy Gill) shambles in, we simply assume he’s meant to be there, with no preceding mention to set up the fact that he has not been invited. Similarly, discussion of a third, lost sibling is simply thrown in as the narrative moves along, and has neither the emotional impact you would expect nor the depth of feeling to which the characters refer in their dialogue. The first act rushes to end with the discovery of Virgie’s body on the beach, but it took me until long after the lights had gone up to make sense of what I’d seen.

The laughter predominant in the first half becomes positively distracting in the second when the mood ought to have shifted gear. Haydn (Helen Geldert) tries to feed her incapacitated mother but Virgie spits out the spooned food and her daughter, frustrated, smears the remainder of the mashed meal around the older woman’s mouth. This prompts laughter from the audience, who are by now so used to mirth that we are not persuaded this moment should be a wrench from comedy into bleakness. I’m not sure what point is being made, either, by having Haydn and Orin dressed for this scene as though they are teenagers – how do they recover their lost youth once they have to assume responsibility for their mother? Is this a belated act of rebellion against Virgie, the original rebel?

The conflation of pathos and bathos is most acute with the appearance of gentle, confused Roy (an endearing Loz Keal), a minicab driver waylaid by Haydn to stay for lunch with the family on the pretext that Virgie may need to be returned to her care home at any moment. He chips in with choric non-sequiturs when invited to comment, and, in his quiet, Northern accent he gives After Electra the feeling of an Alan Bennett play. But I don’t think that’s the effect the director is after. In her notes, Muriel Keech hopes we ‘will laugh, and wince, with Virgie and the rest’. And yet, I wasn’t made to feel awkward that this family was arguing in front of a dying woman and an unfortunate outsider.

The great strength of the play throughout is Fran Billington, who in the pivotal role of Virgie is a tour de force. In the first act she sweeps and swoops about her seaside abode, blithely declaring her suicidal intentions and waving away the concerns of her guests; in the second act, transformed by a stroke, she channels the same energy into her frustration, one arm hanging awkwardly at her side and, memorably in her convalescence, through frantic gestures with her eyes when other characters presume to speak for her.

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Such is her easy presence in the first act, in particular, that it is difficult for the other characters to establish themselves. Helen Geldert has difficulty making an impression as Haydn until she has to take charge of her mother in act two, while both Michelle Hood as Shirley and Helena Koska as Sonia have a tendency to seem flustered in their performances rather than in character. All three at least get to enjoy themselves with a spot of impromptu drumming in the final scene, but the moment again seems to come out of nowhere. As indeed does Theodora Ebeling, who is given the unenviable task of bringing Virgie’s student Miranda to life in the dying moments of the production. Her enthusiasm echoes Virgie’s own but she necessarily lacks her mentor’s worldliness and calculation, so it’s difficult to read the concluding stand-off between her and Haydn. Only David Robins as Tom ever successfully competes with Virgie’s dramatics, and his ability to rise to the knowingly theatrical tone of his dialogue also means he can be affectingly lost when he has nothing – or no one – to play up to.

After Electra remains Billington’s show, and is worth seeing for her performance alone. But on the whole, the production cannot effectively submerge us in the drama that lies beneath its surface.

Matthew Grierson
March 2018

Photography by Tom Shore

From → Drama, Reviews

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