Mike Leigh's 1979 drama is an objective but sympathetic look at what it was like to be a member of the white urban working class on the eve of the Thatcher decade.
It is so detailed
and textured as to be almost overpowering in its reality, so unblinking
as to have an almost documentary feel. And therein lie both its
strengths and its weaknesses.
play is set in
the shabby bed-sit of Jean, a thirty-something petrol station cashier
who we first meet lying naked on her bed after what was clearly a
not-especially-romantic sexual encounter with the man (married, we will
eventually learn without surprise) who is just leaving.
couple of scenes later with a 'You said yes before so what right do you
have to say no today?' attitude, and in between we'll meet Jean's
chirpy friend Dawn, harried mother and casual shoplifter.
first act is there just to establish the milieu and characters and
prepare for the second act, which finds Jean, Dawn, Dawn's husband Mick
and an old friend Len returning from a night at the pub to continue the
party at Jean's.
uninterrupted hour and forty minutes they drink, smoke, chat, drink,
smoke, sing along to Elvis records, drink, reminisce, smoke, dance,
drink, sing bawdy songs, smoke and drink.
remarkably unjudgmental and unsentimental in this sequence, neither
romanticising them as salt-of-the-earth heroes nor retreating to
superior sneering. He lets us see how sad it is that this is what they
consider fun but also acknowledges that they are in fact having fun.
unrelenting in his unedited portrayal of the evening, tedious stretches
and all. How do you depict tedium without being tedious? Leigh takes
tremendous risks here, and it is very much to his credit that it is
only from time to time that you may feel like the one sober person in a
party of drunks, or like you're watching the unedited tapes of an
uneventful night in the Big Brother house.
get a little
melodramatic toward the end, just because Leigh needs an ending, and so
fully have we been drawn into the rhythm of the reality he's
established that that moment clashes unconvincingly.
Leigh, as many
people know, normally creates his plays and films through a long
process of research and improvisations with his actors. This revival is
the first time he has ever gone back to an older work, treating it as a
published script in the conventional manner. And Leigh fans will be
fascinated to discover that you really can't tell.
words of playwright Leigh, director Leigh has drawn from his new actors
the same intense and textured reality he would have gotten from an
original collaborative cast.
carries on her shoulders the weight of a disappointment she isn't fully
conscious that she feels, while Craig Parkinson's shy nice guy of a Len
hints at sorrows and depths he wouldn't know how to explore, and Sinéad
Matthews and Allan Leech prove that some kind of happiness
contentment is available to these people even if it has to be
facilitated with a good deal of lager or vodka.
- by now
you've figured out that the title is ironic - is at its best very heavy
going and sometimes as dreary as the lives it's describing. And as I
said, therein lie both its weaknesses and its strengths.
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- Ecstasy - Hampstead 2011