Dark Hearts

Lost in the woods: Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams in Neil LaBute’s “In a Forest, Dark and Deep” 

We’ve measured out our lives in Mike Leigh plays, from the  perma-squirm of Abigail’s Party to his recent chirpy film incarnations. Leigh has been mocked as a man whose drama revolves round posh people doing impersonations of their cleaners’ accents.

It doesn’t detract from his status as the most distinctive purveyor of dramatic social satire in Britain. Ecstasy, revived at the Hampstead Theatre, is a punishing, rewarding evening and a reminder of what a long-stay asset he is.

First produced in 1979, Ecstasy turns on the fates of a deracinated tribe of Irish friends in Kilburn. I’m sure Leigh didn’t mean it at the time, but it’s also a reminder of why the country so desperately needed Thatcher to come along that year and give the country an electric shock.

 We’re trapped with the cast in Jean’s grim bedsit, where the electric  meter is always on the verge of running out. Alienated from her labour as a petrol pump attendant, Jean bemoans her banishment from the forecourt and being restricted to taking payment from inside her glass box. Siân Brooke is pallid and passive as Jean, enduring loveless encounters with piggish men in a life of quiet despair, enlivened by Harold Robbins novels and a secret gin habit.

It’s enlivened by the arrival of her old mate Dawn (Sinead Matthews), who has Pat Phoenix bottle-red hair, a bra on permanent display and an appetite for shoplifting, drinking and any diversion that does not entail looking after her three children.

There could be no finer sad-comic portrayal of a drunk on the stage in recent memory than Dawn, inaccurately calculating distances and climbing into her platform heels as if they were the north face of the Eiger.

With her charming yet chronically alcoholic husband Mick (Allen Leech) and Len (Craig Parkinson), a kind building-site nerd who once had hopes of winning Jean, the troupe embarks on a cut-price bacchanal of drink, fags, singing and nostalgia. That makes for a draining and very long second act, one that pulls us into the world of people cut off from their roots, half-remembering Irish nationalist songs, youthful japes and Elvis dances, and all spiritually at sea in cold-hearted London.

The action is permeated by politics, neatly evident without a sledgehammer. Len thinks the “Pakis” are driving down wages and doesn’t like “the way they live” but can’t explain why. Racketeering landlords are driving up the rents and inflation eats away at meagre incomes. It’s saved from being a misery memoir by Leigh’s pinpoint observations, from cautious Len’s “Don’t mind if I do’s” to Jean’s curdled sighs of agreement and Dawn’s “ooh-er” capacity for astonishment.

Ecstasy ends with a moment of compassion and a sliver of hope, which in Leigh-land is as good as it gets.

The optimism is served in even smaller portions in Neil LaBute’s In a Forest, Dark and Deep, playing at the Vaudeville. He’s the American dramatist who has inherited the mantle of David Mamet in terms of frequency on the British stage and fan following.

LaBute’s mother apparently once asked him why all his plays were so dark. “They’re just the comedies,” he replied. “Wait till I get to the tragedies.”

Frankly, I’d rather not. From his acclaimed Fat Pig, about obesity, to this play, LaBute plumbs the infinite depths of human hypocrisy — and it’s never a pretty sight. Misogynist hipster Bobby is played by Matthew Fox, star of TV’s Lost with  Olivia Williams as Betty, the sister who has transformed herself from youthful slapper to respected liberal arts college dean.

If you think that proposition is a bit of a stretch, then you’re right. The play turns on a mystery of what has happened to Betty’s student lodger in her forest hideaway and sudden desire to get her reprobate brother round to help clear out her tenant’s things.

Fox has a ball with the role of Bobby, who holds appalling views on gays, academics, authors, “douchebags” and everything else liberal audiences hold dear.

Alas, cerebral, slippery Betty is a lot less convincing. She’s a homage to Tennessee Williams’s dames, addicted to her own waning attractiveness.

“I feel invisible,” she moans of her early midlife slide into the sidelines of sexual action, “like grey Jello.”

Honey, I know how you feel, but it’s a  bit of a distraction from the real tensions between siblings whose love-hate relationship has Deathtrap overtones. LaBute is  dazzling, inventive and, of course, dark, but the revelations don’t shock and the play never escapes its own hidden shallows.

I did feel entitled to some simple good cheer after all this, so it was off to see the Wizard: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Wizard of Oz at the Palladium, which has been restored to look like a gin palace, with acres of Versailles mirrors and plush red carpets.

The great musical Svengali conducted his search for Dorothy in a TV talent contest, and the winner, Danielle Hope, does rather bear the hallmarks of the Britain’s Got Talent era: big-chest voice, solid performance, but zero character of her own.

The production is big, bossy and bright, with the Witch descending on a wire and swaying perilously above the stalls. It is also far too loud. Stop me if I’m sounding old, but why are musicals turning up the volume to ear-splitting levels? “Over the Rainbow” was belted out at a volume heavy-metal bands would quake at. Some funny additional lyrics have been grafted onto the original — “She’s pretty, she’s clueless, and I want her shoeless”— but getting Dorothy back to Kansas didn’t seem to matter enough: the longing got lost in the noise.

Real friends of Dorothy might prefer the new cast of Wicked at the Apollo. It’s a rare example of a prequel which adds something to a familiar tale — cheeky, racy and enough to make us sympathise with girls who end up with green faces. Leave Dorothy to the Munchkins and try that instead.

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