Theatre Review: Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy opens in the West End

Mike Leigh’s play ECSTASY, about old friends in a Kilburn bed-sit, makes a triumphant West End transfer after opening in Hampstead last month.

BLEAK is seldom as hysterical as this.

Ecstasy is more like a comedown from the eponymous drug than the soaring rapture the play’s name implies. But for a show full of disillusionment and stagnation, it is cruelly funny.

We open on a post-coital scene which captures the tone of Mike Leigh’s play – the couple stare blankly ahead barely uttering a word, they puff on sleazy cigarettes and down a can of lager each.

The man leaves, declaring the experience to have been “a bit weird”. Jean is left on her own, listlessly wandering around her Kilburn bedsit. The next two and a half hours bring a maelstrom of violence followed by a drunken party with old friends and the inevitable opening of a can of nostalgia.

Sian Brooke is absorbing as the melancholic Jean, and Sinead Matthews is riotously comical as gobby mate Dawn. The pair must be commended on their unfathomable Midlands accents – they sound like they are conversing in an alien tongue, with their flat vowels and sincere exclamations of ‘oohh-er.’ Also wonderful in the accent department is the enigmatic Allen Leech as Dawn’s husband Mike from Cork. And Craig Parkinson’s rendition of dirty ditty ‘The Threshing Machine’ is delightfully crass.

Mike Leigh’s plays are unique in that they are devised by the actors first, who build up incredibly nuanced characters through hours of background work. The scripts come last and are based on scenes that have been improvised in character. As such, this is the sort of dialogue you rarely hear on stage: it’s unselfconscious, compelling and very real.

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West End transfers often suffer from their own hype but not this show, which opened at the Hampstead Theatre last month. If you missed it when it was up north this is your chance – the prices may have gone West but it’s worth smashing the piggy bank for.

* Showing at Duchess Theatre in Catherine Street, WC2 until Saturday, May 28.