Review – Aunt Dan and Lemon – Royal Court Theatre

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There are some shows out there that I’ve hated and some shows I’ve found confusing, and then there are shows where I walked out just not knowing what to think. In its 1997 Seattle incarnation, Aunt Dan and Lemon left me … well, let’s say I didn’t really embrace it, despite having a brilliant local actor (Charles Smith) in the role of Aunt Dan, and a fine soul (Sydney Fine) in the role of Lemon, the sickly young woman who narrates the piece. (The gender of Aunt Dan was switched in this version.) Actually, I left feeling a bit creeped out – was Lemon really as demented as she came out to be? – but the rest of it had gone rather fuzzy over time.

But, you know, times change, and nowadays I’m in London, where all of the plays I saw butchered back home (Pinter comes to mind) are flourishing in the hands of the extraordinary local talent pool. And, by God, with Jane Horrocks as Lemon, how could I not want to see this show, with its evocation of the dark side of swinging 60s London as well as its many philosophical passages? Surely its failings were due to poor acting and staging, and that would all be taken care of this time.

I’ll say this for the show: listening to Aunt Dan (Lorraine Ashbourne) rant about how noble and just Henry Kissinger was as he bombed little Vietnamese villages flat in order to “protect our lifestyle” sure rings a lot more possible after listening to all of the crap about Iraq over the last eight years, and hearing Lemon herself sweetly talk about what we would all quite naturally do if our “most basic hopes as a society” were being threatened – that we would kill other people with barely a thought – is not quite as surprising (I think of Jean Charles de Menezes) as it was in what seem, somehow, to have been more innocent days. But it still comes off like a night at a freak show when she goes into her final monologue about how we just have to admit that we, as human beings, like to kill. Ms. Horrocks has, I think, the perfect innocence and gentleness to squeeze all of the horror out of this role, which is the incarnation of the banality of evil. I can only imagine what the playwright was trying to accomplish.

Still, most of the people who left (10 or 15 where we were, doubtlessly more in the balcony) departed long before this point arrived, though it didn’t seem to be because of the rather surprisingly graphic sex scene or even the murder. It might have been because it was 110 minutes with no interval … but, mostly, I think, it was because it’s just an irritating script, which, despite the sprinkles of sex-zaz (the luminous Scarlett Johnson as Mindy “who always needs money,” phwoar! – a total scene-stealer) and politics, ultimately comes off as being rather too much like a party guest who just won’t shut up about something incredibly boring, or listen to anything besides the sound of their own voice. Lemon’s mother (Mary Roscoe, very good if too old for the role, but so was Ashbourne) couldn’t get away from Dan, but we, as audience members, could actually just sneak out the back door. I think this is a play worth seeing, and it might never be done any better than this, but I can’t really say that it’s a great play, and without doubt it would benefit from being shorter.

(Aunt Dan and Lemon continues at the Royal Court Theater through June 27th.)

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