The House of Shades (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: May 19, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Helen Murray

Writer: Beth Steel

Director: Blanche McIntyre


In her 2014 play, Wonderland, writer Beth Steel dissected the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, showing remarkable balance when attributing blame for the consequences to specific parties. That was some feat and she now widens her perspective to chart the decline of industrial Britain and its human cost from 1965 to 2019 through the experiences of one family. The play is both epic and intimate.

The Websters are a working class family, living in an industrial community. Father Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie) is a trade union official and a fervent supporter of the Labour party. Mum stays at home because husbands in that area do not allow their wives to work; three teenage kids come and go and grandma Edith (Carol Macready) sits in a corner knitting and reminiscing about her late husband. Director Blanche McIntyre’s intense production has a strong opening, recreating an era of the Rolling Stones and hula hoops with the authentic feel of an early 60s “new wave” play or film. In this, she is ably supported by Anna Fleischle’s carefully detailed set designs and Liam Bunster’s period costumes.

The writer’s most compelling creation is the character of Mum, Constance, brought to vivid life by a magnificent performance from Anne-Marie Duff. Bound to Alistair in mutual antipathy, Constance insists that she is middle class, having been denied a place at a grammar school because a tyrannical father refused to buy her uniform. She is the heart and soul of the family and, at the same time, an outsider trapped by convention and imagining an alternative life as a professional singer. As an upholder of social respectability in an era of rigid rules, her actions are to have tragic consequences.

The play’s social themes are most strongly channeled  through Constance, while its political themes come out through Alistair and his children, Jack and Agnes. As a teenager, Jack, always at odds with his father, announces that he is joining the Communist party and, as an adult (given a defiantly resilient air by Michael Grady-Hall), he becomes an arch Thatcherite, going on to prosper in business. Agnes ((Kelly Gough) remains true to the principles held by her beloved father and lives a life of struggle and disappointment. The political arguments are written and performed with clarity and fiery passion.

Beginning with the heady optimism brought by the new Wilson government, the action moves though the industrial strife of the 1970s and the deindustrialisation of the 1980s; new family members are born and others die. Steel navigates this with wry observations, deft touches of humour and even very effective excursions into surrealism, which see the dead meeting the living. The most striking example of this is an encounter of mutual reassurance between Alistair and his hero, Aneurin Bevan (Mark Meadows).

Steel seems to conclude that, broadly over the years, the Tories have done what should have been expected of them, while the Labour movement has consistently failed those that it has existed to represent. When articulated through the angry voice of Agnes, the writer’s views are potent, but they could prove to be a bitter pill for many to swallow, particularly when delivered here, in the heart of Islington.

The final section takes us from 1996, with Blair’s New Labour on the ascendancy, through to 2019’s collapse of the red wall and a play that is already feeling overlong begins to show signs of strain. There are times when The House of Shades is weighed down by over ambition and times when the human and political dramas do not quite gel, but, when all the elements are working together as they should, this is a house on fire.

Performance date: 18 May 2022

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