Pulitzer Prize-winning classic finally arrives in the West End but was it worth the 37-year wait?
On appearances Sam Shephard’s 1979 play seems like your usual American drama; 2.4 children, a fading American matriarch, a dying father but as this three-act play goes on there is something much deeper but not deep enough that it won’t come out with a little prodding.
Dodge is an Illinois farmer past his best, his cough is heavy and there is a melancholy as the audience enter to find an old man watching TV. Ed Harris’s performance feels like a sophisticated answer to all those Academy Awards and other nominations he has missed out on. A classy actor if Shepherd hadn’t written this in 1979 I would have assumed it was written for Harris. Harris is the centrepiece but that is not to diminish the strong support in Amy Madigan (Harris’s wife in life and an award winning actress)
as Hallie, a righteous woman who seems to have a bizarre relationship with her sons Tilden (Barnaby Kay) and Bradley (Gary Shelford) and the first act really sets this up but at 2hrs 50 it does flag at times but there are enough pickups that the tension alone feels worth the ticket price. Kay, in particular, gives an understated and calm performance as Tilden, a man clearly on the edge; struggling to live with himself and his actions let alone with others and theirs.
The tension builds with the arrival of Vince (Jeremy Irvine) and Shelley (Charlotte Hope). I was disappointed in the character of Vince, he is so obviously a catalyst when he could be so much more but Irvine’s performance of bewilderment when his family don’t recognise him to anger is completely believable and whilst Hope’s outsider in Shelley is appropriate it is hard to understand why she is waiting for Vince in a house where she is clearly not welcomed. Hope and Harris have great chemistry in the third act but it is a play that delivers bolt but leaves you with more questions than answers.
Shepherd doesn’t delve deep into the grimmer elements (this is very much an adult play with adult themes) and it is admirable that he creates drama around the issue rather than as an explosive finale but it can feel too gentle, too sedate for a subject that would be tackled with more disgust and more anger elsewhere.
It is a strong play and the subject of loss and shame never date but it can at times feel baffling, it requires concentration and openness from the audience that very few plays do. The intensity is its plus but, for some, it could also be a minus.