Bush Theatre Summer 2009
Alexi Kaye Campbell's new play has some of the finest, most eloquent and most passionate dramatic writing of the year. If its dramaturgy and characterisations aren't quite as original and impressive, it is still a play well worth seeing.
An eminent art historian honoured as much for her role as a 1960s political activist inevitably neglected her sons in following her two passions, and the publication of her memoirs, which don't even mention them, reawakens the now-adult sons' pain and resentment.
A dinner party also attended by each of the men's girlfriends and an old family friend is the occasion for accusations to be made and truths to be spoken.
The weakest aspect of Campbell's play is that, with that premise, you could probably write at least the outline of the rest yourself.
The mother will react with thinly-veiled bitchiness toward her sons' choice of women. The sons will burst out in their repressed anger and the mother will defend herself while criticising them for their failings. The sons' complaints themselves will be anticlimactic and rather banal.
The one son who is late in arriving, and the subject of much concern, will make a dramatic entrance as the climax to Act One. The obligatory gay friend will be witty and wise in equal proportions.
The character who seems shallowest and most air-headed will prove to have depths of insight and wisdom.
In short, there will be very few surprises once the basic situation is established.
What there will be, however, are opportunities for each of the characters to speak of what matters most to them with great passion and eloquence, and for the characters to debate, argue and even bitch at each other in various permutations, also with great passion and eloquence.
Each of the characters is given what amounts to an aria of self-explanation and justification (which, we are reminded, is what the title means).
The mother enraptures the others and us with her explanation of just what makes art matter. The most visibly damaged son recreates what it felt like to effectively lose his mother as a child. The Christian in the group speaks with eloquent simplicity of her faith. And so on.
And meanwhile the debates, cross-criticisms and nasty zingers traded amongst the various characters are all sharp, telling and frequently very witty.
The overall impression is that, while the characters themselves may sometimes be just this side of cliché, their feelings are real and powerfully expressed, so that we realise that these things - these issues, these values, these life experiences - matter.
Paola Dionisotti seizes the stage from the start as the mother, and both actress and character virtually defy anyone else to take the power spot.
No matter how much of a monster the others paint her as, Dionisotti makes absolutely clear that she has fought and continues to fight the good fight for the good causes, while also allowing us glimpses of what it has cost her.
Tom Beard plays the more buttoned-down son with a subtlety that just hints at the effort it takes him to remain balanced, while John Light exposes his more obviously damaged brother's naked pain.
Nina Sosanya plays the second-smartest character in the room, the only one able to match Dionisotti's mother in quick thinking and bitchiness, and thus keeps the battle even.
Sarah Goldberg makes it believable that there is more to the blonde American born-again Christian than first meets our prejudices. Veteran Philip Voss plays all the wit and warmth of the gay friend without breaking a sweat.
Director Josie Rourke not only papers over some of the less-original bits of plot and characterisation, but keeps the whole play on an almost uninterrupted high level of emotional and intellectual intensity, to match the best in Campbell's writing.
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