by Bill Macilwraith
27 October – 5 November 2016
When this play first appeared, the eminent critic Harold Hobson wrote that it was ‘conceived in cruelty... and is very, very funny.’ Since the death of her husband, Mum has run the family business with an iron fist. Nobody, not even her three sons, dares to cross her. So, when she throws the annual bonfire party to celebrate her wedding anniversary, her sons prepare for an evening of fireworks, especially when two of them have to tell their mother news she will not like. But by the end of the evening the boys – urged on by their partners – rebel and free themselves from Mum’s dominating personality.
When you learn that the horrendously acerbic mother in this black comedy has been played by the likes of Bette Davis it gives some idea of the invisible strings Mum holds over her three adult boys, all of which she evilly pulls to get her own way.
Helen Dunford heaped up the caustic recollections as the family gathered to remember their parents Wedding Anniverary. Any loving word had a barb behind it and this bravura performance headed a cast of equal talent.
The celebrations take place in the rather grand sitting room of Mum’s house in a set designed for elegance by Tony Dent. The accents of the whole family declare a rise in status from ‘saff London’ origins; their money gained through, we learn, their slightly dodgy building trade.
Tom brings his fiancée Shirley to the party, aiming to see if she can stand up against his mum’s needling. Joe Crisfield and Harriett Jackson as the couple, score points as the play progresses but not always in the hoped-for direction.
Henry, the unmarried son, has a fetish for dressing in female clothing. Jan Kool making him somewhat resigned to still living at home and taking much of the brunt of his mother’s maliciousness.
Third son Terry and his wife Karen plan to emigrate to Canada with their five children to get away from his overpowering mother. She forbids it. Michael Cooke’s Terry is visibly torn, being racked by guilt at depriving his mother of an eye, due to an air gun accident. His visible fluctuation adds to the drama, as does the emotional delivery, due to revealed events, by Ann Lovell as Karen.
There are startling exposures and emotions threaded through the play right from the start, with tragedy and comedy mixed well. The audience is kept guessing as to the outcomes of the various plans, right to the end and even when, eventually, the apron strings are cut and the ‘children’ find the strength to plan their own lives, Mum remains thick-skinned over the harm she does. She is so delighted with her own wickedly emotional jokes, she cannot believe her power has, eventually, been swept away.
Ideal casting brought skilled actors together, each delivering their diverse characterisations to sweep the audience into believing that such a harridan could create such a family furore.
The cast of six were served by a very large production team, all under the expert direction of Iain McGrath who delved deep under the veneer of normality to show the harm and horror of a family in conflict.