Lela & Co
Time Out says
A gaudy trip into the heart of darkness
It’s hard to work out whether Cordelia Lynn’s ‘Lela & Co’ is incredibly timely, or if we as a species are so universally awful that it would always feel relevant. But it certainly strikes a chord during a month defined by tremendous civilian suffering.
That’s not the first impression of Jude Christian’s production, mind. We meet Lela (Katie West) as an irrepressible young girl in a party frock, babbling away merrily about her fairly unremarkable family home life. Alarm bells only start ringing when David Mumeni appears as her brother-in-law – a ‘sophisticated’ older man who pompously prattles on about how the 13-year-old has a crush on him, while pawing away creepily at Lela, who seems indifferent at best. Shortly thereafter she and her sister are on holiday with him, and meet a friend of his (played, as are all the men, by Mumeni). The two marry, and suddenly she is locked inside his house, forced into a life of prostitution, while a war rages through the city outside (one gets the impression we’re in the Middle East, though Albania was mentioned in the earliest publicity for the play).
Christian’s production presents this like a dazzling rictus grin, all bright colours, chirpy denial and Mumeni’s brilliant, awful parade of selfish men blithely convinced of their own righteousness (later there’s a ‘kindly’ soldier who freaks out when Lela asks for help). Though there are moments of misery monologue cliché, the whole piece comes suffused with a burning sense of injustice at the ills that originate from male entitlement. Lela receives not a jot of sympathy from anyone – her situation is impossibly ghastly, but nobody thinks they’ve done anything wrong. It only boils over when finally, at the end, West rounds on us, electrifyingly.
The sticking point for some is going to be Christian’s lurid production. I’m not sure Lynn’s story needs all the bells and whistles that are heaped upon it (at most theatres they wouldn’t have had the budget). It takes an inordinate amount time to get going, with a lot of the cutesy early stuff – giving out candyfloss to the audience and whatnot – coming across more like arch theatricality than ironic evocation of a happy childhood. Still, the most audacious intervention worked, I thought. The middle of the show takes place in total darkness, and as the bright, happy fairytale derails, it’s simply impossible to pretend the light is still there.