The Theatreguide.London Review
The Member of the Wedding
Young Vic Theatre Autumn 2007
A warm, rich and wise play is given as warm, rich and sensitive a production as you could possibly wish. Go, give yourself over to it, and let its magic work on you.
Carson McCullers' 1950 dramatisation of her 1946 novel, like the work of her friends and fellow Southern writers Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, creates a fairy tale world called the American South, in which it is always the hottest day of summer, passion is in a constant battle with lassitude, and everyone speaks in a rich but natural poetry so lush that it leaves you on a contact high.
Her play is built around twelve-year-old tomboy Frankie, who never actually seems twelve, but rather jumps from second to second between eight and sixteen.
Frankie's older brother is getting married, and the sudden intrusion of romance into her consciousness has made her drunk with unfamiliar energy, emotions and hormones.
With an attention span measured in microseconds, Frankie moves between playing or spatting with her six-year-old cousin, imagining herself running off with the newlyweds, and struggling with the rush of unfamiliar and overwhelming sensations.
Hear this line, said in a rush, without a pause between the sentences – 'I feel like someone peeled all the skin off me. I wish I had some peach ice cream.' - for a sense of the totally endearing jumble in her head.
The role made Julie Harris a star on Broadway in 1950, and there is every reason to believe it will do the same for Flora Spencer-Longhurst here, so fully does the actress capture the mercurial qualities and essential lovable innocence of the character, so that you alternately want to hug her, smack her and just hold her down as the raging growing-pains energy within her forces her to run around in circles or leap about..
But Frankie is not alone onstage. The American actress Portia plays another fairy tale character, the all-knowing, all-loving black housekeeper who is Frankie's surrogate mother, with a full appreciation of the delicate balance that must be maintained between reality and fantasy in the characterisation.
Three boys rotate in the role of cousin John Henry, and it is hard to believe the others can match the preternatural charm and professionalism of the scene-stealing seven-year-old Theo Stevenson.
Matthew Dunster directs with perfect sensitivity to the play's fragility and strength, sustaining the reality of this alternative universe of innocence with such control that when the playwright deliberately shatters it with a reminder of the casual racism of the time and place, the moment is as shocking as she wanted but the fairy tale then reconstructs and resumes.
Of course the play is not perfect. If you are unfortunate enough not to give yourself over to it, you may find the whimsy a bit thick. Somewhere in the third act it occurs to the author that she really needs a plot, and so some very dramatic things happen very suddenly.
But by then we've understood that the play is about characters and tone, not story, and we have come so fully under the spell of both that nothing short of the final curtain can return us grudgingly to the mundane and prosaic world outside.
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