Mike Leigh's plays are famously devised in rehearsal, so he's never before returned to direct a new production of an earlier piece. This revival of Ecstasy
at Hampstead marks the first time he's revisited a play, and original designer Alison Chitty joins him - judging from the programme's photo of the 1979 version she's recreated that set almost exactly. Marooned in the middle of the otherwise empty, dark stage is Jean's tiny, grotty bedsit in Kilburn. We meet her just after she's had sex with a married man (Daniel Coonan) who'll later turn violent; there follows a series of short scenes giving us an overview of her small, sad, alcohol-soaked life. The bulk of the play is a single, 1 hour and 45 minute-long scene after the interval, as Jean returns to her flat after a night out accompanied by her friend Dawn, her husband Mick, and old friend Len whom they bumped into by chance. They reminisce, sing, laugh and get through huge amounts of booze and cigarettes but underneath it all Jean can't for one moment shake off her despair.
Siân Brooke gives an incredible, heartbreaking performance in the lead role of Jean. She's surrounded by a great cast though - Sinéad Matthews, fast becoming a favourite actress of mine, has to step into a role created by Julie Walters as the bolshy, shoplifting Dawn and is once again someone you can't take your eyes off. She has great chemistry with the hot Irish actor Allen Leech as her husband - the two of them do some of the most convincing but also funniest drunk acting I've seen. The geeky, understated Len was originally played by Jim Broadbent so Craig Parkinson also has a lot to live up to but succeeds admirably¹. What Leigh has managed once again is a very difficult balancing act, of presenting a desperately sad story without simply offering two and three-quarter hours of unremitting bleakness, instead there's a surprising amount of humour and a hugely watchable play - which of course is a major factor in making you care about Jean. Andy and I were both hugely impressed - the only question mark we both had was about Len's breakdown after Jean pours her heart out to him, it didn't feel earned at the time; although in retrospect I think the point is that Jean is vocalising a lot of what he himself also feels.
This has been the biggest hit in a very successful season at Hampstead² and all performances are sold out but they've just announced a brief West End run at the Duchess which (as I predicted last week
) has suddenly found itself available a lot sooner than planned. Ecstasy
by Mike Leigh is booking until the 9th of April at Hampstead Theatre (returns only) and from the 12th of April to the 28th of May at the Duchess Theatre.
¹actually it occurs to me that this time last year I saw Danny Sapani in the tedious Andersen's English
at the same theatre, which makes Parkinson the second Misfits
probation worker I've seen at Hampstead.
²sadly one way the theatre has responded to its recent success is by cynically ditching the cheaper price incentives for early bookers that were introduced when Ed Hall took over.