Review: Other Desert Cities, Old Vic

“Families get terrorised by their weakest members” 

In a rare sighting of new writing at the corner of The Cut, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities was a considerable success on Broadway after it premiered in 2011 and it now makes its way over the ocean to the Old Vic. Lindsay Posner’s production also sees the theatre transformed back into the round (it last reconfigured for The Norman Conquests which I missed and Dancing at Lughnasa which I did not) for a full season of plays of which this is the first – Clarence Darrow, The Crucible and Electra are to follow. 

First up though is this warped family reunion, five members of a wealthy family gather on Christmas Eve in the soulless Palm Springs showhome inhabited by Polly and Lyman Wyeth. Republicans both, they reside in relative exile, hiding from family secrets that have been swept under an expensive rug. But the arrival of their daughter Brooke, dealing with serious depression, triggers a reawakening as she’s written a memoir about the very thing they want to forget.

The conflict that follows, that also draws in their son Trip and Polly’s recovering alcoholic sister Silda, is blisteringly well-constructed in its artificiality. The various family members effortlessly at great length and with huge articulacy about the ethical responsibilities of writing, parental pressure and disappointment, reality television, the privileges of which they are very aware, the corrosive agony of unresolved guilt. The hyper-real writing fitting well with the unattainable station of the super-rich, but pain is a great leveller and soon the secrets begin to tumble from the closet.

And Posner has assembled an exceptional cast to ensure that Baitz’s play hits home. Sinéad Cusack is on scorching good form as Polly, a former screenwriter still possessed of a scathing wit but now wearing the mantle of Republican power-broker too as Peter Egan’s Reagan-esque former actor Lyman has been dabbling in politics. And the writer is canny enough to give us a real depth of character to both of these right-wingers, eschewing the chance to easily demonise. 

As Silda, Clare Higgins is just as sharp as her sister though at the opposite end of the political spectrum, a point neatly underlined by the contrast between the faded blanket she gathers around her and Polly’s pristine cashmere shawl, their instinctive movements mimicking each other. Daniel Lapaine’s Trip is good but Martha Plimpton, making her London debut, is sensational as left-leaning Brooke, simultaneously fragile and iron strong and utterly blinkered in the pursuit of the truth, even as it lays waste to the family around her.

Which makes it a shame that Posner’s direction sits so awkwardly in the space. The first half sees the cast constantly moving, acknowledging the seating all around, but the second half sees them much more static. Aesthetically I get it, they’re increasingly stuck in the emotional morass of what has been unleashed but practically, it meant that for the entirety of the last two scenes and all their key revelations I was watching the back of heads. And as a lip-reader, it seriously hampered my ability to hear what was going on(seriously, I will have to go to a bookshop to read that entire penultimate scene to find out ‘the truth’).

There’s a few days before opening night but I doubt much will change, so I’d definitely recommend booking for the regular end of the theatre, the new seating is the bit to avoid. But though the play may be devoid of any real surprises, the quality of the writing and its intelligence make it an interesting choice and with such a superlative cast, it is nearly always gripping.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Photo: Johan Persson

Booking until 24th May 

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