Review – Ecstasy – Duchess Theatre (transfer from Hampstead Theatre)

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So you’re stuck at a party with people you don’t really like, only you can’t leave without causing a big scene … so there you sit … only you’re actually at a theater and you’ve paid for this experience. What do you do?

Nearly a year to a day and, despite the parallel misery of watching an overly long onstage party with alcoholics, what a difference between my trip to Ingredient X at the Royal Court and Mike Leigh’s ironically named Ecstasy in its West End transfer. I decided to buy tickets late rather than early (during the Hampstead run) as there was a lot of Twitter chatter about how good it was; and as I like Mike Leigh as a film director I really wanted to see what he’d do with a live cast. A Lastminute.com hookup for £20 weekday stalls seats and we were in!

Unsurprisingly (if you know Leigh), this play meanders and seems to not really be bothering either with plot or character “development,” though its characters are so pitch-perfect it’s difficult to imagine them actually having real lives off of the stage. The play takes place in the tiny two-room Kilburn flat of Jean (the rather too-pretty Siân Brooke), who keeps booze in the wardrobe, heats the bedroom with an ineffective tiny radiator (Jean says to Len, “Don’t worry about turning off the heater, let it go until the meter runs out ….” leaving her to wake up in darkness and cold), and uses a shared toliet in the hall. When guests come to visit her, their options are the chair next to the table the TV sits on, the one armchair, or the bed. It’s crowded, crowded, crowded, a far more effective depiction of poverty than the National managed in its expansive set for Men Shall Weep. Despite her old friend Len (Craig Parkinson) kindly saying that it is tidy and compact, to me it seemed a soul-killing environment. Life in London at the bottom of the economic ladder – as the working poor – never seemed so real.

To lighten this up, there’s no “double bed and a stalwart lover,” it’s a broken bed and wanna-be rapist (Daniel Coonan as Roy) and the shiver of gin drunk alone for company when he leaves to go back to his wife. Jean’s life is orderly but basically a pile of misery; even the sex is the complete opposite of the “Ecstasy” of the title. She has a friend, Dawn (the shimmering Sinead Matthews, who could have lit all of the smoked cigarettes with her own energy), who comes over to cheer her up with tales of her screwed up children and gifts of the clothes she’s stolen for Jean. The two of them spend all of the second act with Dawn’s husband Mick and said friend Len, drinking endlessly, rehashing what were somehow their glory days, dancing to Elvis, and having a little singalonga. And is all of this convivial?

No. It is depressing. These people are probably barely 30, and their lives seem like they’re already over. Their socializing with each other seems a desperate attempt to drink away their ability to face up to their the present. With exception of the key question of where the next booze-up is going to happen, they don’t really talk about the future; and why would they?

It’s hard to believe the interminable second act could be billed as a party scene; it all seemed like a long waiting game, either for the rapist to return, the soup to boil, the taxi to show up, or Dawn to wake up after she passes out on Jean’s bed. Mostly it seemed like drinking for the purpose of making the wretched minutes that cause each day to pass so slowly have some sort of purpose; that is, of getting drunk. Me, I felt trapped and frustrated, stuck in a tiny room with people who were fighting to find something to say to each other while the finished their drinks. When, I wondered, would they get as bored as I was? And while we finally had a tiny reveal from Jean, pretty much nothing does happen in this play at all. My suspicion is that we could stay with this group of people for years with nothing ever really changing – thank God after two hours and forty five minutes we at least got to walk away from them and get on with our real lives.

Overall, I have to admire the perfection of dialogue, characterization, and staging of this play – everything really is pitch-perfect. But I have to question the point of it as a work of theater. It has all the makings of something that is going somewhere but then doesn’t. While I can admire the acting and directing skill, there is still that boredom factor – this show outstayed its welcome 30 minutes before it ended, and I can’t really forgive it for this. There’s a lot of great about Ecstasy, but at its core it’s a flawed play. I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t advice it for people who want structure in their shows. Frankly, you could get much the same at many a bar – drunks going on about nothing while you wonder just why it was you bothered going in the first place.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, May 16th, 2011. It continues through May 28th. It’s probably actually really good so if you like top notch acting and can live through the boredom you should go.)

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One Response to “Review – Ecstasy – Duchess Theatre (transfer from Hampstead Theatre)”

  1. Erinb Says:

    I saw this too – I must admit even though it was artfully done my bottom was getting very numb by midway through the second half!

    If you’re interested in cheap theatre tickets Tine Out has just launched their Deals platform and today they’re offering tickets for £6 reduced from £20 to over 20 off-West End theatres including Soho Theatre, for ANY show.

    See http://www.timeout.com/deals to sign up!

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