Immediately there is an atmosphere of secrets and stories as the curtain comes up and the girls fight over the storybook. This is the central point of the show; lying and how even the smallest fib can have devastating consequences. The set is large and the space is left open and largely dark throughout, giving a feeling of grey emptiness and sparse hopelessness that fits the various developments well.
Keira Knightley is remarkably good for someone who is more used to acting on screen than stage. I confess that I was going in with rather low expectations but found myself eating my words. Her accent was spot on and I didn’t notice any slips in either that or her character as a whole. She was confident, which, if the reviews of her previous West End outing are to be believed, is a welcome development. Her character was well formed and she was clearly immersed in her performance (I noticed at one point she very nearly shouted f**k across the stage, which clearly isn’t in the script) and the benefits of this were clear. She was the name that was drawing most of the audience in and she does not disappoint. Her performance is mature and nuanced, passionate and pitiful all at once. Something she can be proud of.
Elisabeth Moss provided a more than capable companion, her character being far more difficult to come to terms with and achieved equally well. Trying desperately to stay in control of herself from beginning to end she executes swift mood swings naturally and effectively and her relationship with Knightley is captured perfectly. They have the mannerisms and comfort around each other that friends who have known each other so long would have. Wonderful pairing.
There are few stronger foundations for a cast than Ellen Burstyn and even here in this otherwise very adept cast she provides the bedrock for what is an emotional rollercoaster. Her grandmother is both conservatively matronly and aggressively righteous at the same time. It’s easy to understand how someone with such mixed ideals can become caught up in a web as she does.
Carol Kane is frustrating throughout. But this is a good thing. Honest. She plays the unbearable aunt that can’t help but tell grand tales and embellish her younger days in the theatre. Her inclusion gives another element to the exploration of lying and is well done. Kane is just what she needs to be and adds another very strong performance to already burgeoning list.
Tobias Menzies is powerful. And he needed to be. With such a strong female cast around him he was the figure of male authority and many times in the script all the females turn to him for something or other. Throughout, he is a pillar of strength, standing by the morals of his profession and his kindliness that were evident in his talent. He brings a latent power that the women lack and that is compelling when it comes into play and painful when it is uprooted.
Bryony Hannah is the star of the show. Her character development was a cut above even Ellen Burstyn. Playing children can be difficult; they are irrational beyond the insanities of adults and their physicality is completely different. They are never still and neither is Bryony Hannah. Throughout the performance she is utterly unbearable and enough to convince most people never to have children. That is testament to how fully she developed her character. This show is almost a wonderful moment of passing the baton. With such strong performances all round it gives a good reflection of theatre today and Ellen Burstyn must be happy to pass a mantle on to Bryony Hannah. If she doesn’t become a very successful performer something has gone horribly wrong.
However, despite all these top class performances the show itself was incredibly difficult to watch. The acting was certainly engaging; a masterclass of how to create believable and human characters, but there was a cripplingly slow pace to the whole thing. Perhaps it is because I am too young to sit through something so intense and agonizingly slow, though I would say I’ve sat through worse. Perhaps it is because the play itself is old, having been written for an entirely different audience in 1933 America. Whatever the reason, and I suspect it’s more of the latter, the whole show was very difficult to take in. You could see the ending and the twists coming from metaphorical miles away and the amount of pauses and silences served more to slow it down to a painfully slow pace for all the wrong reasons.
The effect of this began to show on the acting. The moments of passion where people snapped and started shouting seemed very real but distant. Even the faster sections seemed slow. As a result of this chronically slow pace I would not advise people to go and see it unless they are in it for the acting. The show itself is frustrating. I spent the whole time wanting to slap the child and pack her off to a harsh school and the rest of the time wanting to slap her grandmother.
This show is full of magnificent acting, bursting at the seams, but is a hard watch due to the nature of the mechanics in script and the pace. I only recommend it to those who are well acquainted with the theatre.
Written by Lillian Hellman; Directed by Ian Rickson; at the Comedy Theatre; Starring Keira Knightley, Elisabeth Moss, Ellen Burstyn, Carol Kane, Tobias Menzies, Bryony Hannah; Runs from 22 Jan 11 - 07 May 11.
John Ord (22/02/2011)