YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL! SURE YOU WANT IT?
Revolving sleek as a spaceship is Es Devlin’s multi-layered set: the office and neon slogans of Swan cosmetics: bottles and jars, seductive smartness and ethical boasts of “changing the world one girl at a time”. Making a sly point, the white futuristic plasticity also contains the heroine’s home, where her husband Neil grunts unresponsively at the kitchen table to her teenage daughter. At fifty-five Linda has risen to “have it all”, and it’s all-of-a-shiny-piece. Much good will it do her. Penelope Skinner’s artful new play, alternately hilarious and alarming, makes sharp feminist points but dryly suggests that while 2015’s women and girls do have a lot to contend with, some of the shitstorm is (if not totally our fault) encouraged by the ways we tackle it.
It opens with Linda, senior and award-winning brand manager, doing a presentation about a new cream to be marketed with realistic images of women over fifty, rather than showing women who don’t yet need it. She speaks of the middle-aged problem of “vanishing”, not being whistled at by builders, etc: I jibbed. Some of us find the vanishing restful, don’t envy the catcalled young and think the beauty industry is a bit of a ramp anyway.
But Skinner is well aware of all this, as becomes clear when Linda’s family swim into focus: Imogen Byron a delight as the stolidly sane14-year-old who isn’t interested in that stuff, or in her mother’s gushy tributes to her ‘beauty’. She has other ambitions, involving everything from armed robbery to travel, shipwreck and shark attacks; for a school audition she plans to do a male Shakespeare speech and resents the drama teacher’s view that in plays about men the stakes are inevitably higher because, unlike us, “men, like, actually kill each other”. There’s a lovely ironic scene near the end reflecting that line: won’t spoil it
Then there’s Alice, a truly stunning performance by Karla Crome. She is 25, depressed, and actually wants to vanish: dressing fulltime in a skunk-themed onesie because of a peculiarly awful bit of female victimhood she suffered at fifteen. Linda has unwisely got her work-experience (without admitting the relationship) in her office. Where we find the horrifying corporate-Barbie Amy (Amy Beth Hayes) who definitely wants to have it all. Wedding now, then “Three years to get promoted before optimum baby age, if you go much past 29 you risk being phased out in the workplace and your body doesn’t ping back into shape. And if you don’t ping back into shape you could end up being fat for the rest of your life and if you’re a fat woman you actually earn less…”
We laugh. But my companion , a former corporate executive winced in recognition. We laugh a bit at Linda too, though her misjudgements are subtler – ordering her daughters “don’t take racist of sexist people too seriously” ,being fixated on staying size 10, and rushing home to make risotto superwoman-style rather than actually listening to her daughters. Her nemesis approaches: Amy undermines her at work, there’s trouble with the CEO Dave (Ian Redford nobly sacrificing vanity to look tubby, grizzled and unlovely while patronizing “a woman your age”). Neil has a fling to feel like a rock star not a middle-aged schoolteacher, and Linda’s mental cracks culminate in a properly apocalyptic King Lear moment, with the revolving set flashing in a rainstorm. What has been a funny, sharp, satirical comedy of manners darkens satisfyingly , with some really cruel twists well laid down in the first act.
Excellent. But come last to the headline story: Michael Longhurst lost his star Kim Cattrall to health issues only ten days ago. Noma Dumezweni stepped in as Linda. On press night – impossible at this time of year to delay – she was script-in-hand for some sections. She is superbly nonchalant with it (after all, women execs do carry paper around a lot). And she inhabits the central role with dry wit, crackling energy, lovely comic timing and real heart. What a star. The play is actually better than HANGMEN (lately transferred) so let’s hope the Court scores another West End hit.
box office 020 7565 5000 http://www.royalcourtheatre.com
to 9 Jan