Theatre Review - The House of Shades

Beth Steel’s searing new play spans five decades, from 1965 to 2019, and follows the troubled life of the working-class Webster family. Steel explores several issues from marital discord to abortion set against Nottingham’s bleak industrial landscape. It’s well-trodden ground and her treatment is a mix of the predictable and provocative.

The long, silent prelude to The House of Shades involves Beatie Edney’s ‘Neighbour’ carefully preparing a corpse (Constance’s father) for burial. The play is haunted by ghosts and this plain-speaking local woman, in her no-nonsense headscarf, proves an unexpected harbinger of death.

However, the central character is Constance (Anne-Marie Duff). Endlessly quoting the glamorous Bette Davis, her disappointment is clear. She had hoped to be a singer and travel the world, but ended up a mother and housewife.

Constance yearns to escape the confines of family – her unambitious, shop-steward husband, Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie), who never amounted to much, their three children, and her mother, Edith (Carol Macready), who she cannot forgive for failing to protect her from her father’s violence.

When her vulnerable daughter Laura (Emma Shipp) falls pregnant Constance is furious. She’s fiercely protective of Laura’s future, rages at the “shame” she’s brought on them, and is unwilling to compromise her own independence with devastating consequences.

Throughout, Constance needles her husband for his inertia while he quietly adores her pluck. Not surprisingly their children are just as divided. Jack (Michael Grady-Hall) tries to rise above his circumstances, marries a Tory (Emily Lloyd-Saini) and sets up a successful business selling sports clothes. His sister Agnes (Kelly Gough) remains in Nottingham finding what jobs she can, often ending up with zero hours contracts.

Carol Macready plays Constance in old age, as well as her mother, Edith – suggesting the circularity of their lot.

Initially The House of Shades feels as though we are in TV soap territory, but Steel interweaves the political and personal to great effect. Blanche McIntyre’s well-paced production has plenty of clout and the performances, led by Duff, are compelling.

Until June 27

Originally published by Islington Tribune