Do we really need another ‘state of the nation’ play? I mean, we have a lot of things to be angry about right now – Brexit, the cost of living, ineffective government… Is there a need for another Almeida Theatre production full of frustration about fractured identities when, one might argue, Albion did that to critical acclaim back in 2017?
The creative team behind The House of Shades would like you to think so. Yet in its chronicling of the working class Webster family across five decades (from 1965 to 2019 and led by His Dark Materials star Anne-Marie Duff), writer Beth Steel and director Blanche McIntyre (Hymn) couple mundane and almost abrasive pacing with far too many weighted narratives.
We spend the first five minutes or so of the production watching an Aunt Bessie-like Grim Reaper (Beatie Edney) cleanse a dead body in silence, before she explains the process of rigor mortis. Meanwhile, another scene has us wait for a daughter to finish cooking some food on the stove. The scenes are no more than stiff filler in a 2 hour and 45 minute play, slowing the pace down unnecessarily before hoping you’re engrossed enough to be drawn into the family arguments.
Duff’s Constance Webster is the wonderfully whimsical but firm mother at the centre of the family who all hate each other. She hates the patriarchal husband (Stuart McQuarrie) who kills her dreams of singing on stage; conservative son Jack (Michael Grady-Hall) hates his socialist father; and his sister Agnes (Kelly Gough) hates who her sibling has become. No one is without sin or shame in the Webster family – as the play goes on to reveal – but so toxic is the dynamic that it’s hard to know who to root for, or perhaps more importantly, who the protagonist is.
After her daughter Laura (Emma Shipp) dies from a bloody home abortion, Constance is haunted by the ghost of her through the decades, experiencing pain at the same time as her. It happens more in a tighter second act, but we see similarities in childhood occurring alongside the older characters. In the case of the aforementioned abortion, it almost reads like a comment on a generational trauma experienced by women under a patriarchal society.
A big, interesting topic, of course, but like the characters on Anna Fleischle’s home stage (made up of a kitchen and vibrant pole structures), it too is fighting for supremacy as the main overarching idea. An endless cycle of death and morbidity might have you thinking The House of Shades is a commentary on capitalism and working to your demise, or Jack’s switch from working class boy to conservative a narrative on how Labour lost the trust of these communities, or father Alistair’s imaginary meeting with socialist and NHS founder Nye Bevan a nod to how socialist Labour appears to be lost to history. There’s also the occasional comment about Constance’s father which gets little in terms of a resolution.
There are hearty subject matters to dive into over the course of almost three hours, but all at the same time and with several intertwining subplots and no real sign of a main character? It’s exhausting, and makes it hard to connect with anything unfolding in front of us. In fact, the first two scenes are almost identical in structure: Constance discovering something which she finds uncomfortable; her telling the relevant individual to take off a piece of clothing; and then a shocking revelation (such as a pregnancy or finding out your son’s new and outlandish political views).
Cue a flash and the sound of one of those old powder cameras, jolting us back into the action. While most of the arguing is simply white noise, a lot of the second act lends itself to shinier, flashier and punchier moments. Constance singing smooth soul (joyously delivered by Duff) with her older self (Carol Maceady) is one of the actress’ delightful moments, while Gough stands out with a razor-sharp performance as Agnes. Pained and suffocating, she lets rip at Jack about a society where continuity – and, in some people’s eyes – progress is just a case of survival. The expulsion of built-up energy in her cast mate’s direction is cutting to the extent one wonders why her character wasn’t given more of a central focus, and why so many revelatory flashbacks were crammed into a shorter second half.
Ultimately, Blanche McIntyre’s production isn’t a show you can say you enjoyed – ‘enjoyed’ being the wrong word to use to describe a play full of toxicity, confusion and trauma. For a story about shades, there’s sadly little that’s enlightening.
The House of Shades is now playing at the Almeida Theatre until 18 June.
Captioned, audio described and relaxed performances will take place on 7, 11 and 15 June respectively.
Production Images: Helen Murray.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The House of Shades’ for free in exchange for a review of the press performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.