“What does getting older mean for a woman?”
There was a point in this performance of Linda where Noma Dumezweni’s eponymous character made an actual risotto, and a bowl of pasta and a sauce for her fussy daughter, all whilst performing script in hand and still somehow ruling the stage of the Royal Court. She was on-book because she was a very last minute replacement for Kim Cattrall (who withdrew on medical advice with just two rehearsals left) but even in this short space of time, there’s a magisterial sense of character brimming from this finest of actors (who’s also preparing for her directorial debut early next year in the upstairs theatre!)
And demonstrating just how capable she is fits in perfectly with Skinner’s larger themes – Linda Wilde is a 55 year old determined not to slip quietly into the background as society suggests, and expects, older women should (apart from Helen Mirren that is…). A marketing guru at a top beauty firm, married to the pleasant Neil and mother to two daughters Alice and Bridget, she’s been spinning the various plates of her life successfully for some time now but the centre of gravity in her world has shifted imperceptibly, forcing a reckoning all around.
The sense of never-ending demands on Linda’s life is amplified brilliantly by Es Devlin’s breath-taking set design. A multi-purpose carousel that has all the clinical brightness of a cosmetic concession in Selfridges or a showroom kitchen from Heal’s, it revolves and connects and hides and exposes the tangled strands of Linda’s life and director Michael Longhurst does well to foment an unpredictable air of tension, building up to the moment when the storm breaks, and break it must in a crescendo of cheek-cracking rain.
Skinner’s writing isn’t always as sophisticated as, say, The Village Bike, especially where her supporting characters are concerned but there’s no mistaking the integrity and intent here. Society’s treatment of older women with all their intelligence, sexuality and candour is under the microscope here but so too are the lessons our children learn consciously or unconsciously, Karla Crome’s emotionally battered Alice is exceptional as the flipside to her mother’s exuberant confidence and I liked Imogen Byron as half-sister Bridget too, their different chemistries with the excellent Dumezweni enjoyable to see.
The gut-punch of the final scene may be unsubtle, like a fair proportion of the writing, but it doesn’t make it any less true or any less essential a piece of the current theatre ecology. How many other venues are regularly programming work with such interesting roles for women (RoosevElvis just gone, the next downstairs show here Escaped Alone stars Linda Bassett, Kika Markham, Deborah Findlay and June Watson), how many more unquestioned David-Suchet-as-Lady-Bracknell-type stunts must we suffer, how do we stop even the likes of Vicky Featherstone feeling like this.