Lyons of fire and Ghosts well worth seeing

By John Nathan, October 16, 2013
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Not a care in the world: Isla Blair (with Nicholas Day) is the opposite of the doting Jewish mother in The Lyons

Not a care in the world: Isla Blair (with Nicholas Day) is the opposite of the doting Jewish mother in The Lyons

The Lyons
Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1

The eponymous Lyons family in Nicky Silver’s New York play are so dysfunctional, it’s a minor miracle they don’t come across as a playwright’s construct rather than real people.

Patriarch Ben (Nicholas Day) lies in his hospital death bed directing four-letter vitriol at his wife Rita (Isla Blair), who it would appear deserves every expletive. She is, after all, blithely browsing a home improvements magazine in order to choose which colours to paint the living room after Ben is dead.

When their grown-up children Lisa (Charlotte Randle) and Curtis (Tom Ellis) visit, they turn out to be no better. Oh, and they’re Jewish — in a kind of godless, New York way.

Silver’s dark view of family and marriage could be the offspring of Neil Simon and Edward (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?) Albee. No insult is too wounding to be uttered, no feeling is left unexpressed.

In Rita, Silver has created a matriarch who is the opposite of the doting Jewish mother. Her terms of endearment are delivered with all the compassion of a snake bite. And although there is barely a single attractive personality trait in the entire family, unlike most plays populated with unrelentingly unlikeable people, there is enough humanity on view here — just — to care about the Lyons’s fate.

Mark Brokaw, who also directed the play in New York, gets strong performances out of his British cast. And presumably what we get here is a fair approximation of the production that ended up transferring to Broadway. Blair, in particular, takes full advantage of Silver’s pitiless creation Rita. Funny, brutal and recommended.

GHOSTS
Almeida, London N1

I have just the one reservation about Richard Eyre’s fast but unhurried production of Henrik Ibsen’s play. It’s a reservation that clings annoyingly like a toffee wrapper to a classy brogue and is all the more noticeable in a production that superbly allows the play’s virtues to fully ripen in just 90 uninterrupted minutes.

Much is established and dismantled in that brief time — none more so than the societal bonds that have kept Helene Alving in a life of face-saving misery and, prior to the death of her husband, in a marriage of unrelenting sexual betrayal. In Tim Hatley’s shadowy design, featuring translucent walls through which we can see Alving’s eavesdropping maid, the deceased philanderer’s portrait hangs with unashamed pomposity over the lives of those he destroyed. It’s a bit of a technical point but every time I come across Ibsen — and especially Ghosts — I’m struck by how the author demonstrates the speed with which it is possible to drive events.

In Hedda Gabler it’s the sure-footedness of the plot, but in Ghosts it’s the breathtaking speed with which it unfurls, especially in this tightly written adaption by the director.

Helene’s returning son Oswald (a terrifically fevered Jack Lowden) is the main reason. One moment he intimates that he has a fatal disease, the next he’s succumbing to it. He also directs a most satisfying volley of vitriol at the infuriatingly reactionary Pastor Manders, who presents himself as the community’s moral conscience.

Which brings me to the toffee paper. Manders is played by Will Keen. He’s a fine actor, but I’m not sure his range reaches the “tall, gaunt and handsome” pastor, as the character note in Ibsen’s play describes him.

Especially this one, who years earlier won the heart of Lesley Manville’s Helene. Manville is an actor who cannot help but bring an undercurrent of sensuality to a role. Keen’s Manders, meanwhile, is an annoying little man who it’s hard to believe could ever have had the charisma to win Helene’s heart.
But in every other important respect this production is perfectly pitched. And the climax to which the action tumbles like a speeding car careering out of control is as utterly devastating.

The Barrier
Park Theatre, London N4

l I admit to being sceptical that a play written by someone from outside a closed community such as Stamford Hill’s Satmar Chasids could adequately represent them on stage. But I was wrong. It’s not the Chasids in Sally Llewellyn’s play that fail to convince, it’s their secular, middle-class, middle-aged, one-dimensional neighbours Cas and Sam. Llewellyn seems to have plucked them from one of Alan Ayckbourn’s rejected scripts. They are neither urbane, nor urban.

The main plot is reasonable enough. Chasid Shalev (played well by Toby Liszt) finds that he and his wife are accidentally turning on their neighbour’s security light on Friday evenings. His solution is to erect a barrier so that he may pass without breaking Shabbat fire-lighting rules. But once this issue is resolved the play limps on.

Kirrie Wratten’s production delivers some moments of domestic intimacy in the Chasidic household. But the ropey narrative frays to such an extent that there is not a director on this planet who could save this almost amateur offering from itself.

Last updated: 4:41pm, October 16 2013