Anne-Marie Duff is sensational in Beth Steel’s big new family drama. ‘The House of Shades’ is an epic, sprawling play that tells the multi-generational story of the working class Webster clan and crams in a primer on half a century of British politics, privatisation, abortion, women’s rights, nods to Greek tragedy and more besides. That’s a lot – too much, really – but it’s all held together by a radiant, mesmerising central performance from Duff as the matriarch Constance, in whose kitchen most of the shouting takes place.
Constance, abused by her father, prevented from going to grammar school, bored and frustrated by marriage to kindly trade unionist Alastair (Stuart McQuarrie) is a magnetic, deeply recognisable character: a woman whose talents and abilities curdle into rage that’s directed at her husband, her kids and – finally, via the vodka bottle under the sofa cushion – at herself. ‘I didn’t want to clean this house. I wanted to smash it’ she shouts, recalling her life as a housewife. Duff lights up the stage, showing us Constance’s intense charisma and big aching desires as well as her toxic cruelty and rage. She dresses to the nines, quotes Bette Davis with a swagger even as she’s suffering from emphysema, and sings gorgeously – snatches of ballads from an earlier era, glimpses of sweet dreams turned sour.
Everyone and everything else is cast into the shadows by this incandescent performance. There’s a good cast and a reasonably interesting family saga on offer, which tracks the political arguments of the day in a way that’s not always very subtle: Constance’s twins diverge in the ’80s as he becomes a Thatcherite and she and her husband are left unemployed. I loved Steel’s ear for dialogue which keeps the tragic themes grounded and brings the political theories to life: ‘She’s really pissed on your strawberries”, says Agnes (Kelly Gough) to her brother.
Blanche McIntyre’s production is well-paced and moving; as the corpses stack up, so do the ghosts, and characters are visibly haunted by the family history that shapes their destiny. But many elements and some of the characters don’t stick, and there are moments of boredom and confusion as well as greatness. Ultimately: this is a tour de force performance in an ambitious new play that bites off more than it can chew.