Review: The House of Shades, Almeida Theatre ★★★☆☆

by Jim Keaveney

Beth Steel’s intergenerational drama traces, which follows the Webster family across five time periods; 1965, 1979, 1985, 1996, and 2019, arrives at the Almeida two years late, having seen a Covid-enforced postponement from its original scheduled opening of May 2020.

Directed by Blanche McIntyre, the play maps the family’s trajectory against the rise and fall of working-class Britain and the Labour party – and by extension the Conservative Party. It is clearly pitching itself as state-of-nation stuff through the guise of a kitchen-sink drama but, given it is premiering two years on, does it still ring true? The answer: it’s complicated.

Emily Lloyd-Saini, Michael Grady-Hall, Kelly Gough, Daniel Millar, Anne-Marie Duff, Stuart McQuarrie. Photo: Helen Murray

The family is led by matriarch Constance (Anne-Marie Duff), who, in echoes of Brando, could have been somebody. A talented singer in her youth, she fell foul of false promises of stardom and ended up stuck in the Nottinghamshire town she grew up in, married to the meek shop union steward Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie) who she looks down on with disdain. They live with their three children, twins Agnes (Kelly Gough and Issie Riley) and Jack (Michael Grady-Hall and Gus Barry) and the younger Laura (Emma Shipp), and Constance’s recently-widowed mother Edith (Carol MacReady).

McIntyre artfully navigates the sprawling time frame and the family’s aging with clever use of doubling. It works particularly well when the old-age and hospital-bound Constance is greeted by her younger self. What is perhaps less well navigated is the play’s pacing; with a 2-hour and 45-minute runtime, there is a disbalance in having a 1-hour and 35-minute first half that is double the running time of the second half.

Anne Marie-Duff and Carol MacReady. Photo: Helen Murray

Steel’s family drama at the heart of the play holds its own, with its twists and turns, but it is clear that she wants to say more than this, however, it doesn’t quite make it through. It is part of the problem the play has in arriving two years late – it is almost as if it has missed the boat in some of its messaging. The scenes set in 2019 miss the mark, with the political touch-points having moved somewhat out of the public’s interest. It does, however, have an unexpected contemporary resonance to events in the USA with its depiction of abortion tying it to debates around Roe v Wade. Without further resonance, there is a question of ‘what is it all about?’

The sprawling narrative also creates challenges in understanding the motivations of the characters. Jack moves from Communism to Labour and on to Toryism without any real examination of what motivates his changes despite this being a key element of the plot. There is only a suggestion that it’s due to the influence of his wife Helen (Emily Lloyd-Saini) – a character who is something of an underwritten stereotype. The use of a neighbour (Beatie Edney) who lays out the bodies of the dead is a clever integration of Greek tragedy and a constant reminder that death is always coming.

Stuart McQuarrie, Anne-Marie Duff, Issie Riley. Photo: Helen Murray

There are engaging performances throughout the piece, Grady-Hall and Gough bringing out the best of each other in their sibling sparring, but, in the end, this is Duff’s play. She demands attention as the could-have-been contender, breaking free from the poor hand in life she has been dealt in moments of escapism, where Constance quotes Bettie Davis and masterfully croons like she would have as a star, before unleashing her anger when she comes back to earth.

The House of Shades is at Almeida Theatre until 18 June.

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim