Noma Dumezweni saves the bacon of Penelope Skinner's ambitious feminist odyssey
Ironically for a play that interrogates the cliche of ‘the woman who wants to have it all’, Penelope Skinner’s ‘Linda’ kind of wants to have it all… and doesn’t quite carry it off. It wants to be an epic satire on contemporary patriarchal capitalist society’s dismissal of the older woman (and women in general); it also wants to be a rollicking good comedy; and for extra measure it kind of dabbles with the idea of being a rewrite of ‘King Lear’. On top of that, Michael Longhurst’s production aims to have the fanciest set in town, with its lead the biggest star on the London stage.
It’s already fallen down a bit on that last point: Kim Cattrall was to play the eponymous, 55-year old beauty-industry executive, whose pitch for a new range of products celebratory of women over 50 sparks a dramatic reversal in her fortunes. But Cattrall pulled out a few days before the run was due to start on medical grounds, leaving Olivier-winning actor Noma Dumezweni to step in at virtually no notice. Though sometimes having script in hand, Dumezweni has undoubtedly saved the day with a detailed, humane performance – her Linda is a tough survivor whose urbane facade conceals an ideological zeal that has been the making of her, but may now prove her undoing.
Still, I wonder if Skinner’s boisterous play would have ultimately been better served by Cattrall, who might have chewed up the scenery a bit more. As Linda’s life starts to fall apart – pitch is rejected; husband has affair; pretty, blonde, bitchy 25-year-old colleague gets promoted above her; male boss blithely undermines her – I felt Dumezweni seemed a tad too grounded to sell Linda’s big, ranty speeches.
It’s a funny old play, in both senses. Though Skinner is clearly in deadly earnest about conveying what a ludicrous, bitterly unfair minefield a lifetime of ‘success’ is for a woman, she also stacks ‘Linda’ with humour and even glibness, to the point that the move into ‘Lear’-referencing tragedy at the end feels rather abrupt. It’s only Karla Crome as Linda ’s elder daughter Alice who entirely pulls off the play’s balancing act of cartoonishness and poignancy: she is a sullen recluse skulking about in a skunk onesie, for reasons that eventually prove genuinely upsetting.
‘Linda’ is bold, brash, a bit of a mess, very funny, very well acted, tries to do too many things, painfully perceptive, myopically middle-class and also sometimes cringily on-the-nose. Es Devlin’s remarkable, multitiered revolving set kind of exemplified the problems: it is both jaw-droppingly awesome and distractingly busy. A play that starts off as a smart critique of society’s treatment of middle-aged women ultimately exhausts itself trying to tackle gender inequality on a myriad other levels. It’s good, but it knackers itself out without landing a killer blow.