The House of Shades: 'Personal and the political collide'
- Credit: Helen Murray
The House of Shades
Beth Steel's play is an extraordinary theatre experience which portrays working class lives from the mid-60s to noughties turbo-capitalism through the prism of a family in a northern mining town.
The Websters are a superficially average family but nurse some very dark secrets and long unresolved tensions.
The opening is disturbing: a neighbour is “laying-out” a body in preparation for burial: “I’ll lay anyone out for 2/6d but I do draw the line at orifices.”
We dip into their lives in 1965. The NHS is just 20 years old; industries are nationalised, Labour is in power and the unions are strong. The next decade brings strikes and inflation, but while inequalities narrow, there's a sense that the post-war political consensus is about to fracture.
With Thatcher's arrival comes the onset of the “me” society. Through the 80s and 90s, the certainties of a social safety net, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work wither. Industries decline, unemployment rises and the poverty and hand-to-mouth existence of the interwar years re-emerges. Blair’s Labour government accelerates the process as zero-hour contracts become normalised.
Anne-Marie Duff gives a layered performance as matriarch Constance - a dreamer who wants better for herself and her family.
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Husband Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie) is a solid union man clinging to the glory days of Nye Bevan and unable to accept the new realities. Steel’s dialogue is diamond sharp: cutting, funny and deeply affecting but while the play is littered with robust political polemic as well as hard to watch family rows at nudging three hours it could do with an edit.
There are shocking scenes of a pregnancy termination. Director Blanche McIntyre and a superb creative team choreograph a memorable evening with skill and imagination. For a new generation facing poverty, insecurity, inflation and government indifference, it's an excellent primer in the mistakes of the past sixty years.
House of Shades runs at The Almeida until June 18. Visit almeida.co.uk/whats-on/the-house-of-shades/7-may-2022-18-jun-2022