The director Anna Mackmin and designer Lez Brotherston recently staged a scintillating revival of a Nikolai Erdman play, Dying for It. Now they join forces again to give David Storey a rare outing on the London stage. It’s a move you want to applaud: a piece of serious drama about issues that matter from a significant playwright is a welcome sight in the West End. But In Celebration, Storey’s second play, written in 1969, is a difficult customer. It tackles big emotional concerns and seismic social shifts and it does take wing in the second half, but there are large parts of it that are excessively slow and stodgy. The creative team works hard, and fields Pirates of the Caribbean star Orlando Bloom in his stage debut, but in places it’s like trying to whip life into a cold Yorkshire pudding.
The celebration of the title is the 40th wedding anniversary of Mr and Mrs Shaw, an occasion that has brought their three adult sons back to their Yorkshire mining town. As the play opens, Mrs Shaw is out collecting her new hat, so it is Mr Shaw who welcomes the first visitor, the youngest son Steven (Bloom), into the drab living room. Steven is strangely silent. This makes for one-sided conversation, which Tim Healy (excellent throughout as father) and Bloom (successfully pale and strained) work hard to handle by prowling round the furniture. If Steven’s silence doesn’t ring alarm bells, then the arrival of his mother (Dearbhla Molloy) certainly should: she greets her son with a tart remark. Indeed, the only one of her children to elicit a spontaneous embrace is Colin, the successful businessman.
Why the edginess? What is going on? Slowly, slowly, over the build-up to the anniversary meal and then afterwards, with the help of whisky, we learn of family secrets, brooding resentments and generational rifts. Pride plays a big part. Mr Shaw, a miner for 49 years who refuses to retire until he has clocked up half a century, has sought a better life for his boys by educating them to be professionals. He can’t understand why they are not happy. Colin, the manager, is a success – but at clear personal cost. Andrew, the lawyer, has abandoned his career to become an abstract artist and boils with anger. Steven, the writer, has discarded his magnum opus and seems deeply depressed. Mrs Shaw, we discover, was pregnant when she married and felt she married
As the whisky flows, the feelings boil over. Andrew is determined, Hamlet-like, to blow the whistle on his parents’ shortcomings. So while Steven quietly crumbles and weeps, and Colin (Gareth Farr) desperately smooths things over, Andrew sounds off, railing against the deification of his mother, against his own exclusion at a traumatic family time, against his sense that the family has had to “atone” for his parents’ shotgun wedding. Paul Hilton, wired with wrath, is very good: his every move makes you nervous.
Storey expertly depicts the way families nurse grievances and the way buried pain needs excavating with just as much care as deep seams of coal. He also touches on a very troubling dilemma: how, in a class-riddled society, to educate people out of their milieu without making them feel displaced.
All this is to the good, and Mackmin’s sensitive production skilfully reveals the damage Andrew’s outburst causes: Healy and Molloy very movingly convey their shattered state after the sons leave. But still, too much of the writing is stilted; too much of the dialogue is theoretical. Brotherston’s naturalistic set is impeccable, but there is too much time to admire his accuracy.
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