A striking set, a creative and successful director and a potentially brilliant cast – Sam West’s new production at Hampstead Theatre had so much going for it but what it lacked was somewhat crucial: an engaging and competent script! Helen Cooper’s play is a superficial and deeply insincere piece of writing, its plot and characters lack any depth and the whole evening was flat and uninspiring as a result.
The clichd plot begins with the three women – Ella, Liz and Beth – who it initialy seems are just friends, meeting after a long absence from one another. Ella has been working on her piano concerto for ten years and she wishes to enlist the help of ‘Rich Bitch’ Beth to provide the financial backing and of Liz, a famous pianist, to play the piece. It also eventually becomes apparent that these three women are in fact sisters who were abused by their father as children, and Cooper’s play attempts to examine the way that each of them has dealt with this. But her writing is just not up to the job.
To be fair, Jane Gurnett’s portrayal of Ella began well; her distant and vacant behaviour evoking pity and intrigue. She plays this scatter-brained, troubled character quite subtly, her body movements and hesitant, trailing voice creating the impression of a woman clearly lost and pre-occupied. However, Gurnett’s failure to let Ella develop out of this state and into the artist driven mad with desire for perfection at the concerto rehearsal resulted in a performance that was ultimately monotonous and bland.
Phoebe Nicholls was also initially convincing as the bullied sister Beth; with every cutting remark made by Liz and Ella she was able to convey the sting their words had on her. Her quick and biting responses to her sisters were well executed but, again, this actress failed to let the character build and develop. The end of this play offered the opportunity for a tremendous climax of emotions but as there was no gradual escalation towards this, Beth’s sudden transition from meek to loud and emotional was just cringe-worthy.
There is, too, great comic value to be had from the character of Liz, the bitchy and spiteful sister, especially as she bombards Beth with inappropriately intimate questions about her sister’s marriage. The acidic remarks that rolled off actress Eleanor David’s tongue are delivered with flair and power. She portrayed the fame obsessed Liz with real conviction; the audacity of some of her lines and the voice behind them managed to gain both laughs and gasps of disbelief. David’s attempts at playing distraught were by far the most successful, but she still did not reach the necessary degree of rawness that the drama required.
Though something of a success when it played last year at Chichester, this was an altogether perplexing production, it’s failings resulting mainly from the unfortunate script. The cast could perhaps have exploited the text more and turned in less disappointing performances, but they really didn’t have that much to work with.
The drama promises a crescendo of emotions, but the climax it provides was deeply unsatisfying. Stilted from the beginning, a few outbursts and a sprinkling of tears just could not repair the considerable damage wrought by the script.