“We live in secret almost all the time”
I love Helen McCrory. Like really love her. I have an endless list of actresses whom I really like, but McCrory sits pretty on top of the heap, having found a place in my heart through a select number of roles in film, tv and onstage, almost all of which are indelibly etched on my mind, such is the power of her acting. So when she was announced as leading the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Simon Gray’s The Late Middle Classes, I giddily booked my tickets for this, the second preview. Written in 1999, the play actually opened in Watford but did not make the anticipated transfer into London, being bizarrely usurped by a shortlived play called Boyband so this marks the first time it has been seen in the capital.
Set in the 1950s, it follows a middle-class family, bored Celia, work-obsessed Charles and their son Holliday who is discovering about life through his music lessons with the neighbourly Mr Brownlow. It is actually told in flashback by the adult Holliday recollecting his childhood after an impromptu visit to his old music tutor and the challenges posed by the post-war environment in the UK. It is felt much more strongly by his parents whose privileged position in the class structure has been lost in the face of continuing rations and an almost pyrrhic sense of victory which has not resulted in any improvement in their lives.
Helen McCrory is just fantastic as Celia, struggling to deal with the constricted opportunities offered to her as a woman after the liberation of real work driving ambulances in the Second World War, playing at being the perfect wife but unsure of how to behave as a mother and ultimately finding refuge in tennis lessons and copious amounts of gin. She seems able to pack every single movement and glance with such a wealth of powerful emotion that it is impossible to drag one’s eyes from her: watch her reaction when Charles asks her if her bad mood is due to her period, absolutely priceless. She also looks stunning in her blue dress and her satin shirt and slacks ensemble.
But there is impressive work from the rest of the cast too. In fact Robert Glenister’s first appearance which opens the show is jaw-dropping, he has been aged considerably to play the older Mr Brownlow and it is just shockingly effective. He absolutely nails this senior version with a stunning conviction that it then becomes a little hard to follow him in the flashback narrative as his genial music teacher displays hints of repressed homosexuality and an increasingly disturbing familiarity with the young teenage Holly. But he does it extremely well and we care enough to want to find out the truth of this relationship, I’m only sad that he was only able to appear here due to Hedda Gabler not securing a West End transfer. Eleanor Bron as his mother was interesting, but as a somewhat minor role had little impact on the production as a whole.
Peter Sullivan’s Charles is a model of starched, emotionally constipated Englishness, piercingly funny with his crisp clipped tones and a wonderful line in dismissive one-liners “I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do…”, he’d never admit it but he represents the last gasps of the class system irrevocably changed by war but clenched, unforgiving and unwavering to the last, there’s no changing him. The young Holliday is shared by three young actors and it is a surprisingly big role, he is thoroughly involved in most of the scenes. I saw Lawrence Belcher who was excellent, with a great chemistry with both McCrory and Glenister.
The set is fairly ugly to be honest, the back wall is covered in a floral wallpaper and the flooring is beige carpet. Combined with the furniture in brown leatherette, it’s all assumably authentically 50s looking just not particularly attractive. Matters are not helped by the edge of the stage being illuminated, an effect which just looks leftover from Polar Bears and somewhat unnecessary and incongruous in the scene changes. And then there is the piano. Both Holly and Mr Brownlow play throughout the show but it is an automatic machine so more often than not, the actors are miming playing and doing it badly. In a space like the Donmar, the intimacy is unforgiving and there was some laughable attempts at replicating the tinkling of the ivories with hands being nowhere the keys going down.
Still, the acting is of such quality and the characters created sufficiently intriguing that little quibbles like these just don’t matter. I’d recommend this in a heartbeat, Helen McCrory’s performance alone is worth the entrance fee but she is just one element of what is an extremely strong production for the Donmar Warehouse.