Beth Steel has earned her debut at the National Theatre, slowly grafting her way up via a string of working-class dramas at Hampstead Theatre, on to the hipper Almeida for 2022’s ‘House of Shades’, and now finally arriving at the dizzying heights of the Dorfman.
‘Till the Stars Come Down’ is a beautifully observed and often bruisingly hilarious play that centres on Hazel, Maggie and Sylvia, a trio of sisters from Mansfield, who have reunited for the wedding of Sinead Matthews’s Sylvia.
The first half hour of Bijan Sheibani’s production is luxuriant character building, nary a man in sight as the sisters chatter about Sylvie’s imminent wedding, catch up on lost time – Lisa McGrillis’s Maggie unexpectedly left town a little while ago – and banter. Banter a lot: all of Steel’s characters have a way with words, a quintessentially English, working-class wit. But Lorraine Ashbourne’s dissolute Aunty Carol is something else, a veritable one-liner machine: even if you hate everything else about the play you’d have to be made of stone not to laugh like a drain at something like half of her lines.
As the drama warms up, it looks like it’s going to be about the white working class’s response to EU migration – Sylvie’s husband-to-be Marek (Marc Wooton) is Polish, and the family is divided about him, to say the least; a pass-agg hostility that manifests itself less in overt hatred than a disbelief that his career seems to be working out better than most of theirs.
Really, though, that proves to be more a subplot. ‘Till the Stars Come Down’ is a rich, multifaceted character study, not of an individual but an entire family. At its heart is the question of what it does to the soul to live your whole life in your hometown, on a path entirely predefined for you. Maggie talks wildly of going to America, but it feels unimaginably far away - she has only made it a little up the road, a short journey from a family that feels trapped in aspic, defined by past events and a decades-old grudge, clinging on to the memory of coal mines that closed decades ago. If Chekhov’s three sisters were from the East Midlands…
It’s wonderfully written and acted, building to a dynamite final scene in which a tearful Hazel (Lucy Black) sobs through a pitiful hope that feels like the mantra of these characters: she passionately wishes that if they pretend nothing’s wrong, maybe their lives will simply get better. Sheibani directs warmly and fluidly, with Samal Blak’s simple but effective floor-level astroturf set bringing the cast up close and personal, casting us as the remaining guests at the wedding.
It‘s beautiful and painful but I do now need to talk about the Polish stuff. Unfortunately, Sylvia’s husband Marek feels like grist to the wider plot, a sympathetic figure there to complicate the English characters. But I’m sorry to say the character is so tossed off that it’s hard to see what the play really gains from his presence. Wootton’s bizarre accent is a virtual hate crime, somewhat reminiscent of sex-pest Greek patriarch Pops from ‘League of Gentlemen’. Marek exists in isolation, too, apparently the only Polish person at his own wedding - no family, no best man, his community a distant, veiled hypothetical. His dialogue is also dreadful, strongly suggesting that Steel read that there was no definite article in Polish and decided that was all the research necessary to write Marek’s lines.
As much as anything else it’s just frustrating to have this sloppiness in an otherwise meticulous play. ‘Till the Stars Come Down’ is a funny, heartbreaking piece of writing, wonderfully acted, tenderly directed… except when it isn’t.