Saturday, April 09, 2022

The Anniversary – a dark comedy with a monstrous matriarch, cowering sons and suffering partners (South Bank Playhouse, until 9 April)

Mum is a real piece of work. She runs the family construction business with an eye for profit and a total disregard to quality. Her three sons contribute more to the shoddy workmanship than customer satisfaction. Nor do they ever satisfy their mother, in whose living room they have gathered with those they love in order to mark their parents’ wedding anniversary. It’s 40 years since the couple married, and 10 since their father escaped his purgatory on earth to enjoy peace in the life ever after. The ritual gifting, dinner and bonfire is – on the surface – a chance to respect the dead, but as one son’s wife remarks, it’s really an opportunity for grossly manipulative Mum to “find your weakness and drag it around the room in triumph”.

Act One of The Anniversary starts by introducing the brothers. There’s testosterone-fuelled Tom who Nathan Martin portrays as a cocky manspreader, eager to surprise his Mum with his new fiancée Shirley (Bronagh McCrudden). Father to a handful of noisy off-stage children, downtrodden Terry (Adrian Cooke) is married to Karen (Jenny Groves), but still under the thumb of his mother. Meanwhile the eldest boy Henry is portrayed by Paddy Dixon as a mostly harmless dandy who enjoys dressing up in women’s clothes before pinching them as a souvenir.

The boys spar and spark off each other while Shirley watches in bemusement and trepidation, with Karen providing context and pouring fuel on the family flames. But it’s the entrance of Mum that turns up the heat and sets Bill MacIlwraith’s 1966 play alight.

Roisin Marshall conjures up the monstrous matriarch, a character with a sharp tongue who isn’t afraid to use it. She skips abusively from son to son, humiliating and emasculating them, while demanding their loyalty in return for her less than lavish love. The role demands a larger-than-life character and Marshall delivers a magnificent persona that retaliates against any resistance with even greater threat and malice.

MacIlwraith emphasises the troubled mother-son relationships, infantilising the grown-up boys and creating a parent whose personality seemed familiar – thankfully only in parts – to most people in last night’s South Bank Playhouse audience.

Amongst all the dark comedy, any sense of hope in The Anniversary rests with the input of Shirley and Karen. While the boys never stand a chance against their own flesh and blood, surely these outsiders can cut Mum down to size? McCrudden’s prim and trim Shirley periodically emerges from her shell to challenge Mum, sometimes applauded by Karen, sometimes mocked. After the interval, we discover the cost of standing up to the bully as Mum ramps up her intimidation, goading Shirley to escalate the battle and risk her relationship with Tom. McCrudden’s depiction of bravado and regret, switching from shy to sassy, with eyes wide open and adrenaline pumping is great fun to watch. As is Groves’ enactment of battle-hardened Karen, who can’t help herself but lay into her mother-in-law even though she knows the impossibility of besting her.

Written a decade earlier than Abigail’s Party – which enjoyed a fabulous revival at the MAC back in 2018The Anniversary is more bombastic and much more out of control. Two years after its stage début it was adapted into a film starring Bette Davis and Sheila Hancock as Mum and Karen. The South Bank Playhouse may be an amateur company with a real family feel to front and back of house, but it has professional standards, a welcoming spirit, and its ambitious production values shine throughout.

The six-handed play is real gem. The third act introduces more classically farcical entrances and exits as a parade of family members carry evidence out to an unseen bonfire. Like an early morning gym instructor, director Stephen Beggs keeps the cast on their toes, never letting the pace or tension subside, and milking physical looks and movement for laughs as much as MacIlwraith’s dense dialogue. I was never quite convinced that the accents were pinned to the south London setting of the play; the piece would also have worked if it had been lifted and shifted to south Belfast where cowboy builders and controlling mothers are also in abundance.

While redemption is never on offer for Mum, the other five adults must decide whether to suffer the pain of separation of endure the agony of staying. For the audience, there’s more than enough to return us to our seats after the interval to remain on our best behaviour in case we provoke the ire of all-seeing Mum!

The Anniversary finishes its run in the South Bank Playhouse on Saturday 9 April. You’ve missed a treat.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you Alan. Lovely to welcome you to Southbank Playhouse!