House of Shades review: A jumble of family saga and political screed
hat a disappointment. Beth Steel’s long-awaited and long-delayed play is a confusing mix of family saga, melodrama and political screed. At its heart is a moving, layered performance by Anne-Marie Duff as the matriarch of a working-class Midlands family, whose lives we follow from 1965 to 2019. Blanche McIntyre’s baggy production features plenty of people explaining Labor politics, women’s disempowerment and – obliquely – Brexit to each other, but can’t decipher the script.
We are in a British manufacturing and mining town, unidentified but clearly Nottingham. Duff’s Constance has three children – twins Agnes and Jack, and Laura, who has learning difficulties – with tough steward Alastair (Stuart McQuarrie). She cleans her doorstep every day but dreams of a life of showtunes and Bette Davis jokes. Jack wants to be a communist, Agnès wants to be independent. It’s not too spoiler to say that neither they nor Constance get what they want. Either way, the kitchen disagreements over Harold Wilson are cut short when Laura is revealed to be pregnant.
The horrific reverberations of what follows resonate through the generations. But sporadically, as if Steel only occasionally remembered that she had to break political arguments by referring to them. Meanwhile, family members struggle and switch political sides during the Winter of Discontent in 1979, industrial action in 1985, the last days of the Conservative regime in 1996 before the rise of Tony Blair and the new brave world of payday loans and zero hour contracts in 2019. .
The extremes of family drama, which include physical abuse and an elusive suggestion of incest, sit eerily alongside clumsy, discursive political debate. “As it happens, I think this ‘New Labour’ has a chance,” says Michael Grady-Hall’s Jack in the 1996 segment. Well, thanks for that Jack. Any thoughts on the 2024 vote I’d like to bet on?
The realism of the kitchen sink is undermined by bizarre flights of fancy. Alistair’s death is heralded by a verbose vision of NHS founder Nye Bevan: adult Agnes watching her childhood follow her father to the grave. The play references Greek drama and is meant to connect to contemporary politics. But mostly it feels like a rehash of the decades of recrimination and anguished self-pity that will be familiar to any ordinary Labor voter.
Steel won that newspaper’s Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2014 for his marvelous mining drama Wonderland. Sad to say, there is little of the richness and vigor of this piece here. Duff’s expressive face and wayward emotions are more observable than ever, and McQuarrie brings a neat, downcast understatement to Alastair.
The cast is solid. But the play is weak and overly long at almost three hours, and the director, McIntyre, seems to have just waved it around without fixing the issues. Steel was one of the most lucid and interesting people I spoke to about the future of theater during the lockdown. I was looking forward to this. That’s a shame.
Almeida Theater, until June 18, almeida.co.uk