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Posts Tagged ‘Knot of the Heart’

We appear to be in a golden age of new plays. Bartlett, Bean, Butterworth, Graham, Kirkwood & Raine have all delivered gems this year and now David Aldridge joins them. His is on a much more intimate scale, but it’s as captivating as any of the others.

It’s the fag end of a party, the early hours of Sunday morning, and the host Laura and guest Danny, who she doesn’t really know, are the last two standing. There is clearly a mutual attraction. He’s damaged – deserted, divorced, estranged and lonely – and socially clumsy. She’s successful and independent, but with no family, also lonely, and too frank, forward and direct for Danny. They play out the difficult first 100 minutes of their relationship in real time.

Though it’s mostly about loneliness and relationships, there are a whole load of other themes including father’s rights, desperation for children, impersonal modern dating methods and more. It’s voyeuristic to watch, but it’s not uncomfortable. The characters are superbly well drawn and the performances of Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton are stunning. Troughton in particular perfectly captures the complex cocktail of emotions and vulnerability of Danny. Polly Findlay’s direction is totally in harmony with the writing and Fly Davis’ uber-realistic design anchors it.

I’ve never thought Eldridge’s work as consistent as other playwrights, but he has produced gems before, notably In Basildon, maybe when he’s writing from experience. Somewhat ironically, he produced the least plausible play about middle-class life, Knot of the Heart at the Almeida, and has now produced the most plausible! This is an enthralling experience, particularly welcome at the NT.

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It’s hard to believe that this excellent new play comes from the same pen as my 2011 Turkey of the Year, Knot of the Heart! This uber-realistic and authentic piece is a huge contrast with the other’s implausibility. As playwright David Eldridge hails from the area in which it is set, I suspect this time he’s writing from experience – and it shows.

Len is dying of prostate cancer and we’re in the living room of his home (in Basildon, obviously) where a bedside vigil is in progress – sister Doreen (who lives with Len) & her son Barry (for whom Len was a father figure) and Len’s best mate Ken; neighbour Pam is on tea duty. We’re soon joined by estranged sister Maureen who won’t talk to her sister (and vice versa) directly. The family feud is revealed but not understood. Doreen is further upset when it becomes obvious that Ken knows more about Len’s wishes than she does.

We move on to the wake, joined by Barry’s wife Jackie and Maureen’s daughter Shelley & her boyfriend. Shelley is the one member of the family who escaped to university. She became a teacher and returned to the East End where the family originated and where she now lives with boyfriend Tom, who’s own escape was in the opposite direction from his investment banker dad. The family feud is further fueled by the reading of a letter from Len laying out the highlights of his will, but we still don’t understand its origin. We finally flash back 18 years where the circumstances of the rift are at last revealed.

This is a very believable family story, but the play has at least two more layers. It shows the late 20th century exodus from the East End via inner Essex towns like Romford to places like Basildon even further away. We glimpse the reasons for the moves and attitudes that accompanied them. Furthermore, it explores how the political changes of the last 30 years have impacted these particular working class families. I lived and worked in Essex for 18 years during this period and it oozes authenticity. The family story also resonates with me!

The theatre has been reconfigured for Dominic Cooke’s pitch perfect production, with the audience on two sides and two levels. Though this does provide a bit of a bear pit for the family exchanges (well, from where I was sitting anyway), I’m not sure it was worth the trouble and expense.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen are both terrific as the sisters, both in estrangement and closeness. Lee Ross brilliantly conveys the complex set of emotions Barry experiences – living with the family feud, his hinted financial troubles and Jackie’s more overt desperation for her own home and child (superbly played by Debbie Chasen). Peter Wight’s conveys that special relationship of ‘the best mate’ with a nice touch of old man letch.

It owes something to Mike Leigh (and there are a couple of Leigh regulars in the cast and a reference to his most famous play), but it’s an original, well structured and deeply rewarding play which will undoubtedly feature in the list of 2012’s best and another must-see at the Royal Court.

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