(From the run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East: seen at the afternoon
performance on 2nd March 2019. Some actors have now left the production).
Peter Shaffer’s play is more than 45 years old, yet still exerts the ability to
hold audiences in iron grip when given an outstandingly simple production like
this one. The simplest set (Georgia Lowe) has curtains surround the stage, a
bed, TV set and a few other bits and bobs moved on and off as required. Movement
director Shelley Maxwell supplies the horses, in impressive manner – Nugget (Ira
Mandela Siobhan – superlative) and Keith Gilmore also doing so brilliantly.
Acting honours are spread pretty equally through the cast. Central to the plot,
Alan Strang (Ethan Kai) is monosyllabic yet tortured as the teenage man.
Thrillingly, he manages to remain interesting even when utterly closed off and
remote, making his later unwinding even more compelling. Scenes with Jill Mason
(Norah Lopez Holden) run deep with dangerous undercurrents of which she is
unaware, to her cost. Mason makes the most of a small role, particularly when
given the initiative in her earlier scenes.
Strang’s psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) asks probing questions, not
just of his patient’s life, but also his own – and indeed the world. His
choreography of the final revelations are frightening, but not quite as
thought-provoking as his realisations that disturbed as they are, his patient’s
actions are more alive than his own.
Magistrate Hester Salomon (Ruth Lass) provides the intellectual wall for Dysart
to richochet off, while Strang’s parents Dora (Syreeta Kumar) and Frank (Robert
Fitch) hover. She is a religious person, formally a teacher; he is a printer –
and rules as straight as a line of text… or so it would appear.
The play itself remains a dissection of organised religion and its role in
society. Much more for post-show discussion than with time to explore
mid-performance, there’s symbolism and arguments, attacks on the doctrines of
blind obedience and indeed the lack of sight (the heavy central metaphor of the
After 45 years, there is some dating. It’s arguable that some of the iconoclasm
has already occurred, in fact, this country appears to have evolved as the
writer predicted in that area. Small other details, like a scene in an “adult
movie” cinema and the attitudes to that material also age the piece, and it is
necessary to think back to pre-internet and loosening of censorship and society
rules in order to comprehend fully parts of the second act.
Ned Bennett’s production, though, makes tight work of the fine writing; the cast
and staging do their best to present a modern classic at its best. Should the
Ambassadors Theatre in London become available, this would certainly settle in
for a long and successful run (decent guess, but no banana - editor).
Don’t miss it if it comes your way.