The Theatreguide.London Review
Garrick Theatre Winter-Spring 2005
On one level Bill MacIlwraith's 1966 black comedy represents little more than TV sitcom writing of a high order, with situation and characters set up to allow an uninterrupted string of witty one-liners, so mechanically structured that you can almost hear the pauses for canned laughter to be dubbed in.
But it is very, very funny, and this highly polished and beautifully directed revival, transferring from the Liverpool Playhouse, is a welcome addition to the West End.
The play is built around the Mother From Hell, a deeply sadistic matriarch who amuses herself by toying with her grown sons. The eldest is thoroughly emasculated, the middle son devotes his life to trying to win some hint of love from her, and the youngest keeps trying ineffectually to break away.
The occasion is a family gathering that also includes the middle son's wife and the youngest's fiancee, and the claws and knives are out from the start. Every attempt by the men to assert themselves is met by a withering, testicle-crunching riposte from Mum; every effort by the younger women to support their men wins them a personal insult unerringly hitting their weakest point.
And it is all very funny. MacIlwraith has given the mother the cool self-confidence of the strongest and smartest person in the room, along with a delight in her own uncensored wickedness. And, while the others - notably the daughter-in-law - occasionally get in a zinger of their own, the evening is carried on the mix of shock (Did she really say that?) and guilty delight (Yes she did!) generated by mother's inexhaustible resource of evil wit.
And what makes it work, of course (aside from the excellent performances and direction), is the artificiality of it all. It is because these are all sitcom characters and not real people that we can enjoy the skill of the killer without worrying unduly about the suffering of her victims.
Maintaining that delicate balance of comic artificiality is tremendously difficult, and major credit must be given to director Denis Lawson (himself a comic actor of great skill) for establishing and sustaining it, and for keeping the timing and rhythm of the gags at optimum level.
Sheila Hancock (who played the daughter-in-law 39 years ago) plays Mum with the unmistakable and unfeignable authority of the master actress, striding through the play with exactly the devil-may-care confidence the character needs, making her a frightening wonder to behold.
The rest of the cast are somewhat limited by roles which are necessarily one-dimensional, though Rosie Cavaliero as the daughter-in-law hints at a woman whose iron will and sharp tongue may make her more like her adversary than she'd like to admit.
The black comic tone shifts to something a little more melodramatic near the end, and the energy level does drop somewhat, but not enough to spoil an evening of wicked delight.
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