No sooner do we get over Kristin Scott Thomas going murderously nuts as the original Electra at the Old Vic, than along comes April de Angelis with a sly, hilarious, biting and ultimately moving modern take on that primally perilous mother-daughter bond. Her wit (lately deployed in FANNY HILL at Bristol) now returns to the fertile middle-class territory we relished in JUMPY. This Theatre Royal Plymouth production certainly ought to follow it into the West End.

It begins with a classic what-if social situation: frumpy middle-aged Haydn, a grief counsellor with little cheer about her, visits her artist mother Virgie in a beautifully realized ramshackle Essex railway-carriage cottage (Malcolm Rippeth’s design). She is promptly informed that the glamorously boho 84-year-old plans to cap the party by drowning herself. “Not looking forward to the decrepit bit” breezes Mum. This, after all, is a 60’s free spirit, lately spotted at 76 in a nude peace protest, married to her art. Other visitors arrive for the terminal salad lunch: Tom the weary old RSC actor : “playing a variety of beards now, you never remember the names” carps his thwarted novelist wife Sonia. Kate Fahy and Neil McCaul give excellent glare as the poisonous couple. Then there’s Virgie’s sister Shirley, an overconfidently brisk OFSTED peer (“I was a headmistress, I”m used to controlling situations I know very little about”). And there is the alcoholic son Orrin, thrown out by his wife.
So with snorts of laughter and gasps of shock, off we go: and it’s more than a treat, de Angelis pacing her laughs neatly as surprises (Sam West directs, and I bet he enjoyed it). Marty Cruikshank is swashbucklingly enviable as Virgie, Rachel Bell a sharply smooth sister, so credible as a life peer that I almost looked her up in Hansard.
Veronica Roberts as the troubled daughter gives just enough hint of the real seriousness of the family situation and back-story, which are revealed in the second half, on the far side of Virgie’s stroke and her cantankerous near-recovery. There’s a Colchester cab driver too, a lovely gangling cameo from Michael Begley (“I picked a bloke up at Braintree once, thought he was Buddha. He wasn’t”). And finally, briefly, an art student, who matters.

The play continues to provide violent laughs, often at the expense of Tom the actor, a constant joy; but moves into darker territory with the unfolding of the question it really wants to ask: not about suicide or even really about female ageing – though there are some treasurable remarks on that subject, not least Sonia’s panicky conviction that Zumba and “West African drumming” will keep her young. Rather, it resolves itself into the starker question of whether a mother who is also an artist has a right to place her gift and her message higher than her duty towards her children.

For Virgie is a kind of Clytemnestra, though the husband she discarded was not actually killed and Haydn’s revenge is wreaked on her canvases, not her body. But what remains of this immensely enjoyable play is even more powerfully a joyful reminder of how sharp, how funny, diverse and stroppy older women can be. And how rebellious. I could quote it all night, but be satisfied with Virgie’s solution to the budget deficit: care-home denizens, she says, ought to be sent to war:

“Free travel to exotic places, no heating bills, stepping on a landmine, quicker than cancer. 80 years, shot by insurgents at Kabul while winching her mate’s wheelchair out of quicksand. Saves the NHS loads, no wasted life, no bereft mothers, no wobbly kiddie-writing saying Daddy we miss you – our kids have grown up and hate our guts. It’s a solution”….
My late Mum would have loved that. A lot.

box office 0207 328 1000 to 2 May
rating: four   4 Meece Rating


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