A subversive tap to the head

Deaths in the family have a way of dredging up the past – half-buried conflicts, petty resentment and jealousy, regret, grown women compulsively breaking into three-part harmony at the drop of a hat.
In The Hills of California (Harold Pinter Theatre), three sisters in their thirties – Jillian, Gloria, and Ruby (Helena Wilson, Leanne Best, and Ophelia Lovibond) – reunite in the summer of 1976 in their childhood home because their mother is dying of cancer. Conspicuously missing is their oldest sister Joan, who left home in her teens and never returned. It’s not long before we’re back in the mid-50s, sorting through the circumstances that got us here. In their youth, the four sisters (Lara McDonnell, Nancy Allsop, Nicola Turner, and Sophia Ally) were trained as an Andrews Sisters-style song-and-dance troupe by their single mother, who sees it as the family’s ticket to a better place. It’s this dynamic that turns out to be key to unraveling the story of Joan’s absence.
For a play that gets a lot of its drive from postwar England’s starry-eyed fascination with American culture, it’s fitting that Jez Butterworth’s newest work has echoes of the Southern Gothic to it – transposed across the Atlantic to a Blackpool guesthouse on the decline. The ambitious yet desperate Veronica that we see in flashbacks (Laura Donnelly, who also shows her versatility playing the elder Joan in the present), consummate Overbearing Stage Mum, wouldn’t be out of place in a Tennessee Williams play. Her daughters have all been affected by their past and the expectations placed on them in distinct ways that tend to spill out during heated moments. Everyone is constantly sweating and pouring a drink. There’s an eerie bit involving a broken jukebox that precedes one of the best moments in the play (no spoilers).
Given its subject matter and soap-opera plot beats, the play’s execution is refreshingly funny and nuanced. The third act, in particular, subverts both narrative expectations and the unspoken social contract of family that’s been hanging over the characters’ heads throughout. The dialogue shines at its most conversational – moments where it feels like the comedy or the anguish are unintentional and unselfconscious. This strikes a balance between theatrical and organic. Although there were a few moments that laid it on a little thick, what are you expecting from a domestic melodrama? Go see it, if only for one of the most viscerally uncomfortable tap-dance numbers you’ll see in the West End this year.
Meanwhile, I had a good giggle watching one of those “what if” scenarios. Stephen Moffat’s play, The Unfriend (Wyndhams Theatre) imagines what would happen if that person you befriended on a holiday cruise, whom you politely invited to come and see you when “in town”, actually turned up. It happened to me once and I’m still in recovery.
It is painfully hilarious watching the loquaciously garish American, Trump-lover Elsa (Frances Barber) march into the lives of middle England couple Peter (Lee Mack) and wife Debbie (Sarah Alexander), thrilled to accept their offer. All is not what it seems, and Google comes up with the possibility that she may in fact be a serial killer, worthy of a Dexter episode all of her own, potentially being the murderer of several of her family.
The guest who soon outstays her welcome, and one that you would gladly throttle, Barber’s enigmatic Elsa is a deliciously bonkers mix of conspiracy theorist and all-round looney tune whose mannerisms and sharp tongue enable her to wiggle out of all the awkward situations and questioning that may blow her cover. Mack and Alexander are a picture of constipated suburban politeness who struggle to find the right and proper solution to their dilemma. Nerves frayed and the exit sign for their unwanted guest getting no closer he becomes a nervous wreck who erupts into moments of the manic, gesticulating Mack we all know. Alexander is the perfect foil to her harangued husband, displaying excellent comic timing and expression, and Nick Sampson’s Neighbour is dazzlingly dull.
Mark Gatiss’s production, wittily designed by Robert Jones, is brisk and fun, a classic English comedy of manners. Some of the humour, especially the lavatorial references, can be dumped overboard without any great loss and the play requires a final twist, a foghorn moment.

Gertrude Lawrence: A lovely way to spend an evening (Wilton’s) is a one- woman tour de force, with actor and singer Lucy Stevens taking the lead role, in conjunction with pianist Elizabeth Marcus. Stevens’ voice dazzles throughout.
‘Gertie’ as she was known, went from Clapham to the dizzy heights of Broadway. Born in 1898 on a music tour where her father, a bass player, was appearing. Her first professional foray, aged 10, saw her star in a production at the Brixton Theatre, a Christmas show. She was soon enlisted at Miss Italia Conti’s dance school for boys and girls. There she met Noel Coward, who became a lifelong friend and collaborator. She joyfully name-drops throughout – Kurt Weil, Rogers and Hammerstein (who rewrote ‘Anna and the King of Siam’ into the musical ‘The King and I’ for her). She had an eventful life and by the 1930s she was a star and a newspaper fixture. She battled financial hardship on both sides of the Atlantic. Her steely determination and relentless hard work made sure that she was back to financial rude health.
A fast-paced show, well worth a visit.

The Hills of California – www.hillsofcaliforniaplay.com
The Unfriend – www.theunfriend.com
Gertrude Lawrence – on tour – www.gertrudelawrence.com

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