“I’ve had me ups and downs but what with one thing and another, it evens itself out in the end doesn’t it”
Ecstasy, at the Hampstead Theatre, marks the first time that Mike Leigh has returned to and directed one of his own plays. It originally played at the old Hampstead in 1979 and was devised by a cast that included Julie Walters, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent and Sheila Kelley (mother of Leo Bill, trivia fans!). It was also designed by Alison Chitty who returns here to create a most effective cramped, depressingly chilly bedsit, convincingly 70s in every way and using just a portion of the available space on the stage, but the astonishing performances that spill out from there more than fill the room in this tale of alcoholism and grim despair in the winter of discontent.
Lead character Jean works at a petrol station, lives in a dingy bedsit in Kilburn and is resigned to a life of anonymous sexual characters with the wrong men, including married violent Roy. School-friend Dawn comes down from Birmingham for a visit, away from her three kids but bringing her Irish labourer husband with her and after Jean has a particularly nasty encounter, they go out for a night on the town. The majority of the play then focuses on the aftermath of this night out, as mutual friend Len, recently divorced, also joins them for a impromptu session back at Jean’s, full of Irish sing-songs, reminisces about their youth, the state of the world they’re living in and of course, a whole lot more drink.
It is always pleasing when expectations are met when it comes to much-anticipated performances and both Sinéad Matthews and Siân Brooke, actresses whom I admired last year and whose presence in the cast was a major reason for me booking. Brooke is just sensational as Jean, a woman to whom things happen rather than a woman living life and even as her placidity is shattered in the truly heart-wrenching finale, she maintains the understatement making sure her pain feels so very authentic. And Matthews is simply unrecognisable from the fragility of the Young Vic’s The Glass Menagerie as the bolshy wisecracking Dawn, outrageous in her behaviour but utterly convincing in her relationships with her friend and particularly with her husband, played with a swagger by Allen Leech, the sexual chemistry palpable between these two. But it is Craig Parkinson’s Len that really matches the quiet intensity of Brooke’s work: a man beaten down by life and scarcely able to mask it but possessed of an innate decency that suggests a little bit of hope will always endure.
Ecstasy is now sold out, testament to Leigh’s appeal but also a pleasing indictment for Edward Hall’s tenure which seems to reinvigorating the Hampstead Theatre with success. It must be said that it is long and you do feel it, as the interval comes at 45 minutes in making for an exceptionally lengthy second half which you know won’t end happily, it is Mike Leigh after all, and I did have the slight feeling that the final breakdown was a little predictable and perhaps not strictly necessary, so much having already been conveyed so well without explanation. But this is strong stuff which feels as powerful now as it must have done back then, the everyday detailing is timeless and the loneliness of city living is something that persists no matter the economic climate, and given the strength of acting performances, especially from Brooke, Parkinson and Matthews, that have been teased out by Leigh, it could well be worth queuing for returns on the day.