The reviews for Mike Leigh’s long-awaited trip down memory lane at Hampstead Theatre, where he premiered ‘Abigail's Party’ in 1977, were fairly ecstatic: hence this West End transfer for the director's revival of his own 1979 play, 'Ecstasy'.
In the theatre and on film, Leigh devises stories with actors which make documentary accuracy into a beautiful thing as well as an important one. This gin-soaked piece of Kilburn social realism now looks more like history than documentary. Leigh’s new ensemble of actors were barely born when Leigh’s original cast, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea created the original roles. Without exception, they bring maturity, tenderness and a devastating emotional availability which translates what could have been a museum piece into living, breathing memory.
‘Ecstasy’ is a two-and-three-quarter-hour portrait of despair – with a few longeurs but a lot of humour, bravery and extraordinarily detailed character work. The short first act opens with Jean (Sian Brooke) flat out and topless on her cramped bed as her married lover stares morosely at her bedsit kitchen. Jean – unmarried and profoundly unhappy compared to her raucous shoplifting mate from a Midlands convent school, Dawn – dips deeply into the gin bottle to cope with a life where she’s a punchbag for her lovers and a sounding board for her friends. Her assertion of human dignity through keeping herself and her flat tidy, is heartbreaking.
In the long second act, Jean, nerdy old flame Len (Craig Parkinson) and her bickering but contented married friends Dawn and Mick (Sinead Matthews and Allen Leech) all get drunk. Matthews and Leech are the most plausible drunks I’ve ever seen on stage: Leech squeezes his genial Irish-accented speeches out through a face which is rubbery with beer; hassled Brummie mum Dawn is stunned into relaxation by a tidal wave of booze – Matthews cracks everyone up when she goes off, frequently, to ‘get on the toilet’.
Leigh captures their rhythm with judgment and sensitivity. The scene when they, as Irish ex-pats inevitably will, sing ‘Danny Boy’ and a host of lewder, ruder songs, is a tremendous example of earned, shared mirth: you laugh with them, not at them.
The tragedy of ‘Ecstasy’ is that Jean – deeply listless, receiving little impression of pleasure or of life – is the only one in the room who can’t join in and let go. This an unmissable portrait: of despair, but also of revelry, candour, cruelty and unexpected kindness.