saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
The Hope Theatre
8th June 2015
Photography © Ben Broomfield
Sometimes art imitates life and that can be quite unsettling. You learn a lot about yourself from theatre. It doesn't just move, it educates, it informs. Me, I'm arrived at the inconvenient truth that no matter how hard I try to disguise the fact, I'm undeniably middle class. I've been to private school, my dad shops in Waitrose, my sister stays at home to look after her kids whilst her husband works.
There are a lot of unsettling parallels between my life and new play The Legacy by Angela Clarke. I suspect I won't be the only person to react in such a way - the middle class are like the secret Tories who tricked the exit polls this year. You think no one in your inner circle is one, but actually, there are far more than you think.
Stay-at-home mum Rebecca (Lucinda Westcar) is waiting for her late father's will to be read. She's kept company by her suited and booted husband Adam (Jim Mannering) and her female activist sister Esther (Claira Watson Parr). Rebecca hasn't seen her husband in a long time - well, it really depends on whether you count waving briefly at him during one of his triathlons as quality time or not - and her sister has been living on the other side of the Pond for more than 12 years. She's surrounded by family, both of whom insist they're at the solicitor's office purely to support her, however we're not quite sure who has her best interests at heart. Tensions are running high, to put it mildly.
Adam and Rebecca are middle-class caricatures, frequently darling-ing each other without a shred of sarcasm. Rebecca is happiest making hummus and upcycling furniture, ignoring Esther's suggestion that she might feel more satisfied if she went back to work and did something just for herself. References to Farrow & Ball paint and shopping in Waitrose seem artificially shoehorned into the dialogue in an attempt to ram home the point just how privileged Adam and Rebecca are. There's a certain amount of humour in their apparent lack of self-awareness yet there's no real need to force this all in. Take the couple, place them in suburbia, send their children to public school - it's pretty obvious they have money and certain expectations. There's no need to labour the point.
There's nothing wrong with poking fun at the middle-class - hey, they sometimes write themselves by their own ridiculousness - if done brilliantly. Clarke's writing is frequently awkward and clunky in this regard. Some of the jokes are just too obvious and this makes it hard for them to properly land. That said, there are some excellent throwaway lines laced with black humour, such as Rebecca's confused insistence that she must be happy, because she lives in Harpenden. Clarke can be, and is, sharper and more elegant at times; she just needs to use this style consistently. There's promise in her writing.
When Rebecca's reality is shattered by a family secret, we see the Stepford - sorry, Harpenden - glaze finally start to crack. She's used to running around after her husband and children, with nothing fazing her but she can't cope with the notion that her perfect husband might be anything less than the perfect provider and role model. When Adam's job is threatened by a younger, more-educated woman, Rebecca can't entertain for one second that Adam may actually be the weaker candidate. She's completely reliant on him and unwilling and possibly unable to challenge her perception. Adam really is the original man; her gift from God. It's in these scenes that director Michael Beigel brings out the depth to Westcar's character - she's no longer two dimensional and we truly feel sorry for her.
The script could be improved by making Adam's controlling behaviour more subtle and perhaps by exploring the invisible aspects of abuse such as financial. A vending machine for hot drinks rather than a jar of instant coffee in the secretary's office, with Rebecca having to ask Adam for coins each time she disappears to fetch a coffee for example. Rather than explicitly following up comments with "that's what Adam says", we could see Rebecca simply looking at Adam more often for reassurance, underlining the dependency fostered by him through expressions rather than words. It's clear the man is a jerk, but I think our anger would be even greater and the abuse element of the play more powerful if we could see him trying to better hide his hold on his wife. He's very blatant and just doesn't seem to care that Esther can see through him.
The Legacy's enduring message for me is that us women need to look out for each other a bit more. Whether that's being supportive of a female bid for control of the boardroom or making sure a newly married pal isn't allowed to isolate herself from old friends, female solidarity is an important tool in winning the fight for equality. There are some weaknesses in the writing, that's for sure, but not enough to take away from Clarke's noble intention. And it's the intention which will stay with you after the final curtain: that's her gift to you.
The Legacy opened on 8th June and runs until 13th June 2015 at the Hope Theatre.
Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)