Hampstead Theatre Spring 2011
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.
The 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.
He'll return a 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.
The forty-minute 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.
For an 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.
Mike Leigh is 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.
He is also 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.
Things 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.
Mike 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.
Working from the 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.
Siân Brooke's Jean 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.
Sinéad Matthews and Allan Leech prove that some kind of happiness and contentment is available to these people even if it has to be facilitated with a good deal of lager or vodka.
Ecstasy - 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 Theatre 2011