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The House of Shades (Almeida Theatre)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 18th June 2022)

A while back, someone in the press was asking why we never see a proper “right wing” play. This is not quite answering the question, but it is getting closer to the line than one might expect – a particular surprise given it is from the Almedia Theatre, located in core-left Islington London N1.

Author Beth Steel takes us into a modest working class Nottingham family home, following the family from 1965 through until 2019, a year before the play was originally to have been produced.

Housewife Constance (Ann-Marie Duff) is married to Factory Union Rep Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie). Son Jack (Michael Grady-Hall) follows him into the works, daughter Agnes (Kelly Gough) wants to do anything but become a housewife. Jack declares himself a communist, but over time his perspective changes, particularly after meeting his future wife, Helen (Emily Lloyd-Sanini on delightfully class-confused form).

Two major sub-plots at first glance seem superfluous, but both reveal themselves to be metaphors for the struggles explored as centrist left and right political ideologies are tried and the left is found the most wanting given the prevailing evidence.

The struggle of life and death, concealment of birth and worse – all witnessed by Jack – could be seen as the Socialist cause played out to a bloody ending.

Constance and her imagined quest to make use of her talents outside of the home represents the battle for female independence, overlooked by the male-dominated union organisers and forgotten by the very politics which claims to represent all struggling workers (and housework with childcare ranks high among the hardest of all).

Duff is memorable as the matriarch yearning for more and concealing wounds inflicted by both chance and circumstance. Her battles with McQuarrie are realistic, his callous devotion to cause credible and much of the period.

Fine direction by Blanche McIntyre integrates with touching efficiency the growing up of Teenage Jack (Gus Barry) and Teenage Agnes (Issie Riley) – a fine pair whose sibling rivalry produces a comedy moment and horrible mirroring tableau later in the play.

Also notable is Mark Meadows who creates both a recognisable Northern Club circuit sleazy Entertainer and an uncanny Aneurin Bevan. 

Some perfectly chosen music (the monkey admits a little Jolson always adds a star to any opinion) and a depressingly unchanging-through-the-years kitchen from Blanche McIntyre, smoker-yellowishly lit by Richard Howell add to the verisimilitude.

Uncomfortable truths are confronted, particularly the final scenes with a money lender contrasting the relative needs and wants over decades and both a business owner and local resident providing perspective on their loved community.

Perhaps there is a little too much going on at times, and the supernatural flashes and flashbacks are a little unnecessary. The play however delivers constantly enough for these to be overlooked and even considered at times a distinctive flourish of individual writer style. 

The monkey’s feeling is that this is a contemporary “Saved,” sharing a gutsy and gut-exposing working class view. Just as Edward Bond’s play has become a modern classic, so should Steel’s work be deemed worthy of becoming a future school examination text. Uncomfortable in many ways, it pulls no punches, tells its truth and is probably going to prove at the very least one of the best new plays the monkey will se this year.

4 stars.

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