Jane Edwardes on the South Bank
4 February 2024
Wedding days that are joyful and run smoothly are hardly likely to make compelling plays. So, when Beth Steel’s cacophonous, big-hearted Till the Stars Come Down invites us to witness the knot being tied, the expectation is that there will be no shortage of booze or of raucous behaviour, possibly even a fight or two. Also, that painful family secrets will be exposed and generational conflicts simmer. Steel doesn’t disappoint. But, although there are some predictable moments, her play has an intoxicating flavour all of its own.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
Like her previous plays Wonderland and The House of Shades, this is set in Nottinghamshire, where Steel grew up and where the memory of the miners’ strike still runs deep. Plenty of people still recall who crossed the picket line and who didn’t. Anne-Marie Duff was in the audience on press night, a reminder of the memorably monstrous woman she played in Shades at the Almeida. Here, too, women take centre stage. In this case, three sisters, who share with Chekhov’s siblings a nostalgia for the past, but not the desire to escape their hometown.
Where there was once a mine, there is now a huge warehouse (think Sports Direct), where Hazel, the oldest sister works. According to her, you can’t get promotion there unless you are Polish. Her prejudice is a problem given that Sylvia, the youngest sister, is about to marry Marek, who arrived with his friend on a Megabus several years ago and now has his own business. There is an undertow of discomfort about the marriage. Equally, none of Marek’s family is there to support him because, Sylvia believes, she is neither a Pole nor a Catholic. Alongside Hazel and Sylvia, there’s also third sister Maggie, who left the town unexpectedly two years ago for reasons that no one understands.
Bijan Sheibani’s superbly cast production moves at a cracking pace as Sylvia’s family gathers for the big day. We are plunged into the preparations as the women get dressed, curl their hair, slap on their make-up, and knock back a buck’s fizz or two. Lorraine Ashbourne dominates as brash Aunty Carol, stunning them all with her enormous purple hat. Later, she attempts to shimmy to Britney Spears’s “Toxic”, a song she claims as her own, having consumed most of a bottle of vodka. Her outspoken comments provide much of the play’s outrageous humour as well as its dynamism.
Marc Wootton and Sinéad Matthews.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
Part of the fun is in seeing a large group of skilled actors onstage, whose characters rapidly fall apart as the alcohol takes hold. We in the audience are periodically included, especially when a pair of spandex pants goes flying into the audience. This could be an ad for teetotal weddings.
Marek is a huge bear of a man, adorably played by Marc Wootton, who is not afraid to express his love for Sylvia in a song, despite the giggles of Sylvia’s family. Sinéad Matthews brings a sweetness to Sylvia, caught between her family and her new husband. There’s the dawning realization that she is going to have to choose between the two. Even Alan Williams gets to shine as Sylvia’s strong, silent father Tony, when he is persuaded to re-enact his prize-winning performance as Tarzan. More complicated is the much-married Maggie (Lisa McGrillis), who brings one too many secrets into the play and threatens to turn it soapy.
Steel is exploring the importance of family and community, especially when the opportunities to find fulfilling work are pretty well non-existent. How devastating is it then to be betrayed by someone within one’s own family? Hazel’s daughter might imagine herself as an astronaut, but she will almost certainly end up working in the same warehouse as her mother. Her father dreamt of being an artist but is now unemployed. Even so, he refuses Marek’s offer of a job. Why do the locals feel more defeated than Marek? Is it because they remember a time when the men took some pride in their jobs? One of the most moving moments of the play is when Uncle Pete, Carol’s husband (Philip Whitchurch), ritualistically lists all the mines that are now closed.
By staging the play in the round with a design by Samal Blak, director Sheibani makes sure that we are up close to the chaotic action. The wedding meal takes place on a revolving stage and a glitter ball spins likewise above. New plays nowadays seem to need to refer to the universe and this is no exception. The fact that Sylvia is obliged to wear her dead mother’s wedding dress enhances the feeling that this is a mere moment in time. That feels more like an add-on rather than integral to the play. Nevertheless, while the wedding might be a disaster, the show is a triumph.