Finding a good old-fashioned play among the musicals in the West End is nowadays akin to diving for pearls. That the Duke of York’s Theatre continues to bias its output away from the musical should, in some ways, be a cause for celebration in itself. That it requires a Hollywood star to get it kick-started should cause us no alarm.
The question, however, is whether revivals of relatively obscure plays are a wise and worthwhile thing. The answer is probably “depends on the play”. I am not convinced that David Storey’s In Celebration is entirely in the “worthwhile” category but there is evidence it is in the “wise” one.
The story focuses on a family reunion in an unnamed Yorkshire mining town in the 1960s (“miles of nothing” as one character describes it). The occasion is the 40th wedding anniversary of Mr and Mrs Shaw, which brings their three sons, struggling writer Steven (Orlando Bloom), solicitor turned artist Andrew (Paul Hilton) and car factory manager Colin (Gareth Farr), back home for a night. The family is haunted, however, by the death of the Shaws’ first son, Jamie, at the age of seven, and as darkness falls, the ghosts of the past turn the celebration into a wake.
It is a totem of modern arts policy that theatre must be “relevant”, and there is something to be said for a production that feels as benignly irrelevant as the Blue Peter time capsule. Of course, at the time it was written, it was probably a shining example of “relevance” in theatre, so accurately does it seem to portray the real lives of a mining family (although it was called “social realism” then). The surprise, for those of us who’ve seen Billy Elliot or the Monty Python sketch about the boy who rejects being a playwright for the life of a miner, is how supportive the family are of their sons attempts to better themselves no “working class and proud of it” nonsense here.
At the same time, it seems more relevant than ever to today’s radio phone-in psychologists that echo Larkin’s words about what your mum and dad do to you (“they may not mean it, but they do.”) The Shaw’s support for their sons’ attempts to better themselves appears to backfire royally as their offspring find themselves tortured by their weight of their parents’ expectations. The institution of the family itself is held up to scrutiny as the well-meaning motives of the father to spare their sons from the misery of the mine and the mother’s obsession with protecting her children from harm is seen as having killed their first born and blighted the lives of the others.
Storey, to his credit, does make this feel more complex, so we are never presented with an entirely Manichean view. As a piece of theatre, however, it’s not that deft. You can almost hear the gears grinding as Hilton’s brilliant performance as Andrew suddenly turns very nasty Hilton handles it brilliantly but it remains a dramatically unconvincing shift. Healy plays a pleasant Mr Shaw, however tiring his constant declamatory tone becomes, but is not given much pathos until well into the second act.
The rest of the cast put in strong turns, with Dearbhla Molloy’s turn as Mrs Shaw particularly well-observed and affecting, but they struggle to extract a piece heavy on philosophy and light on drama from the coalface. And then, of course, there’s Bloom, whose understated performance almost has him disappearing into the scenery at times with only his A-list aura signalling his presence.
This is a thoughtful production, beautifully designed, that, like its protagonists, is rather overshadowed by its past. A brave choice for the West End, maybe; in my opinion, possibly a little foolhardy.