Having just seen a hard-hitting black comedy with a dysfunctional family and a cruel mother (Leicester Curve’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane), the next day we went to the Menier Chocolate Factory, where we witnessed a hard-hitting black comedy, with a dysfunctional family and a cruel mother. Is there something in the water that’s causing this? “The Lyons” is a 2011 Broadway hit by Nicky Silver, being seen for the first time in the UK in this production. It’s sharp, snappy, very funny, somewhat anarchic and probably not to be recommended if you’ve had a recent bereavement.
Hospital style drapes form the traditional theatre curtain and get swished away with unsentimental briskness to reveal Ben on a drip in a hospital bed, with his wife Rita reading a magazine, and a nurse doing the usual checks. But you quickly realise this is no normal hospital visit. Not only is the patient terminally ill with cancer – very terminally, as it turns out – but his beloved visitor can’t stand the sight of him. Gaining inspiration from a glossy magazine, she is planning a makeover on the living room so that all traces of him will be eradicated from her home once he’s shuffled off this mortal coil; a pure charmer, if there ever was one. Add to this mix their two children, both saddled with a lot of baggage; an alcoholic daughter who picks unsuitable guys, and a gay son fantasist. There’s sibling rivalry; there’s also sibling secrecy, and by entrusting secrets to each other, both children have unwittingly given the other a huge amount of ammunition to be kept in reserve for the time they can both do most damage. That’s enough plot revelation; suffice to say, this is not a family you would want to live next door to. As it progresses you realise that this is actually a very nasty play, full of nasty people; but you kind of don’t want it to stop either.
It is a beautifully written, cunningly structured play; if you were to take away the bad language, some of the subject matter and the violence, you would be left with pure Ayckbourn. Nicky Silver has written a play that makes you laugh, and then instantly regret the fact that you found such a dreadful situation funny. Despite the fact that the action takes place over approximately one week and there are only two different locations, you get the feeling that this play has a very wide range; the unseen characters only mentioned in the text all have their own identities too and they all take on quite vivid personalities in your imagination. There are a number of neat twists in the story which keep you topped up with surprises right through to the end, and it’s all told in a concise and punchy one hour and fifty minutes, which even includes a (somewhat brief on the Sunday matinee) interval.
The cast of six give great performances, full of electricity that sparks off each other and keeps the momentum cracking. At the centre is the ghastly Rita, played with huge relish by Isla Blair. Savage, self-centred, mean and cruel, nevertheless she successfully keeps up a dignified persona so you could easily assume she was as nice as pie. She delivers Rita’s spiteful lines with such comic brilliance that you sometimes have to look away to cringe. Nicholas Day (whom we last enjoyed as the Headmaster in The History Boys in Sheffield) is the exasperated Ben, finally telling his wife and family what he thinks of them and fondly reminiscing about his father. For every vicious volley that Miss Blair thwacks at him, Mr Day ricochets it back with suitable venom. They make a lovely couple.
Charlotte Randle is excellent as the daughter Lisa, all smiles and sympathy one minute, all self and self-destruct the next. Her performance is a cunning blend of being sweetly assertive and outrageously manic. I really liked Tom Ellis as Curtis, with his hilarious but sad secret; the plot unexpectedly concentrates more on him in the second act, and he is very convincing as both fantasist and impatient patient. Ben Aldridge appears in just one scene but very nicely conveys the surprisingly complex character of the Estate Agent; and Katy Secombe’s nurse is a delight, dispensing friendliness to those she considers deserve it, and aggression to everyone else; or should that be the other way round. Even her use of the anti-bacterial gel oozes contempt.
This savage play is not for the delicate; nor, as I said earlier, if you’ve been recently bereaved because I think the blackness of the humour would cross over into being positively upsetting. But it’s a great look at a woefully unpleasant family, using terminal illness as a turning point in their relationships. Crisply directed by Mark Brokaw, it’s another winner for the Menier.
PS. Do you ever wonder how much the cast observe the audience during a play? In a big theatre, when the house lights are down, I expect they don’t see much. I’ve no idea – I’ve never been in that situation. But in a small place like the Menier, where you can basically stretch out from the front row and touch the stage, it might be different. There was one point in the second act when Isla Blair was completing a speech which meant she turned from the character she was talking to and looked towards the audience. She then looked down, and glanced up at us again in a double-take. Both Mrs C and I noticed it. Then of course she carried on as if nothing had happened. What on earth was she looking at, we both wondered. Then the penny dropped. Mrs C was wearing the most sensational pair of colourful Doc Martens. That might not be how you imagine her (she’s not a bovver girl), but suffice it to say these boots are florid purple and with a soft fabric like a 70s Indian Restaurant wallpaper. I can only think that Miss Blair caught sight of them and her brain said “What the hell are those? Check them out again!” And, you know, Miss Blair gave us both a devilish twinkle in her eye during curtain call.