Neil Dowden in north London
Beth Steel writes big, bold, ambitious dramas in which individuals are caught up in a complex web of political, social, and economic layers that hugely impact on their personal lives. She won the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2014 for Wonderland about the 1984 coal miners’ strike, which was followed by Labyrinth that explored the Latin American debt crisis of the late Seventies and Eighties. Her new play The House of Shades – originally due to have its premiere two years ago until Covid struck – takes an even wider historical timespan in its portrayal of several generations of a working-class British family amid the changing industrial landscape and labour movement of the last five decades.
Principal cast members. Photo credit: Helen Murray.
The episodic story follows the Websters in (unnamed) Nottingham (Steel’s own hometown) from 1965 to 2019 as they contend with upheavals in society. The particular years chosen mark key moments in Britain’s socio-political history. In 1965 the post-war consensus still holds sway with the diluted socialism of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. But in 1979 the ‘Winter of Discontent’ gives rise to the uncompromising monetarist reforms of Margaret Thatcher. The bitter aftermath of the failed miners’ strike in 1985 marks the decline of industrial communities. Tony Blair’s New Labour is in the ascendant in 1996. And, finally, Tory post-Brexit 2019 sees the collapse of the ‘red wall’.
Stuart McQuarrie and Anne-Marie Duff. Photo credit: Helen Murray.
But the family is also rife with internal conflicts as they bicker over the kitchen table about politics and relationships. Whilst the elderly Edith mourns for her recently deceased husband, we learn from their daughter Constance that he was abusive. Denied the chance of a grammar school education, Constance has led a frustrated life as a wife and mother after marrying the first man who came along, Alistair, a union shop steward in the local bike factory (Raleigh). Tragedy strikes when their younger daughter Laura dies while pregnant. Later we see their communist son Jack move towards free-market capitalism as he marries his Thatcherite girlfriend, sparking furious arguments with his sister Agnes whose husband loses his job, as the family disintegrates just like the neighbourhood around them.
Having such a politicized family as the Websters helps Steel dovetail some of their domestic affairs with nationwide concerns. However, although the range of this epic play is admirable, covering topics such as class and gender inequality, fading trade union power and the demise of manufacturing, privatization and precarity, there is rather a lot of ideological discussion. Equally, the work is packed full of personal drama, including physical and sexual abuse, abortion, and dysfunctional family relationships, but Steel tends to overdo the revelations.
Stuart McQuarrie, Anne-Marie Duff, Issie Riley. Photo credit: Helen Murray.
This is reminiscent of the kitchen-sink drama of Arnold Wesker, mixed with the state-of-nation polemics of David Hare, but Steel adds more surreal touches.
As the title suggests, The House of Shades is very much a ghost story, with characters haunted literally and metaphorically by guilty secrets from the past. The use of doubling for playing older or younger members of the family also echoes this trope. In addition, it owes a lot to Greek tragedy with its intergenerational cycle of bad blood. This is also suggested by the periodic appearance of a neighbour as a choric figure commenting on the general situation to the audience. She starts as someone who lays out bodies – as we see at the outset of the play – but by the end she has become a loan shark, symbolizing the deterioration of community spirit.
Blanche McIntyre’s powerful production channels well the play’s energy and passion, even if the stage sometimes feels close to bursting with people and the action veers towards melodrama. Anna Fleischle’s imaginative design suggests different parts of the family home with kitchen centre-stage, plus armchair for sitting room and dressing table for bedroom, with staircase and hanging windows behind and the theatre’s brick wall as backdrop.
Leading a strong cast is Anne-Marie Duff giving a spellbinding performance as the Bette Davis-quoting Constance, who is forced by circumstance into a restricted domestic life which turns her toxic. She also sings beautifully in the fantasy sequences when she revels in the spotlight of a showbiz career she dreamed of. Stuart McQuarrie is also excellent as her unromantic, bookish husband Alistair whose idol is socialist and NHS founder Aneurin Bevan (who makes an unexpected ghostly appearance). His political rows with son Jack (played as an adult by Michael Grady-Hall) continue even after death, while Kelly Gough’s increasingly angry Agnes also lays into her “class traitor” brother. Carol Macready is the grieving, self-deluding Edith, while Emma Shipp makes an assured professional stage debut as the vulnerable Laura, whose spirit won’t let her mother go.