Mrs Affleck @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Claire Skinner, Angus Wright, Naomi Frederick, Phil Cheadle, Wesley Nelson, Alfie Field, Josef Atlin, Sarah Niles, Omar Brown, Rene Gray, Cassie Atkinson

directed by
Marianne Elliot
Rita Affleck is a woman out of place.

Immaculately attired in a striking teal dress, with smoke curling from her elegantly cocked cigarette, she is a creature of fire and colour trapped in a muted grey kitchen and in a marriage that has left her feeling unfulfilled.

Samuel Adamson has taken Ibsen’s late play, Little Eyolf, and transplanted it to a Kentish coastal town in 1950’s Britain. We know it is the 1950s because there are superbly be-quiffed Teddy boys strutting around, numerous references to the end of rationing and the recent arrival of immigrants from Jamaica, and the women wear dresses that wouldn’t look out of place in a film by Douglas Sirk.
But despite such details, this act of relocation feels forced and the play sits uneasily in its new surroundings

At the start of the play, Alfred Affleck has just returned from a trip to the Highlands, a trip he undertook ostensibly to complete a book he had been working on. During his stay, he has come to the decision to abandon his book and focus his attentions on their son, Oliver, a bright young boy disabled after an accident when he was a baby. Rita is affronted by this announcement, for she views her son as a barrier to her husband’s affections and, because he was injured while they were making love, the boy’s disability provides a constant reminder of the passion she feels she has lost. For all her fire, Rita appears to be a cold, uncaring mother, who dresses Oliver in a Hop-along Cassidy outfit because “he hops along” and, at one point, admits that she would rather he hadn’t been born.

Adamson (who also adapted Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community for the National) takes a good long time establishing this dysfunctional set up and the first half has several lulls. Though things improve in the more emotionally volatile second half the play still drags in places. Despite the turmoil on display, there is a coolness to proceedings that throws up a wall between audience and performers and makes it hard to become invested in their plight even when the first half ends in a tragedy that forces all concerned to face up to what they have lost. Alfred, deep in grief is torn between his wife and the affections of his half-sister Audrey, while Rita is catapulted into an abyss of self-questioning.

There are some emotionally potent moments in these scenes but they are only the most fleeting of moments. From an aesthetic perspective, there is also a brilliant sequence when the characters are caught in a mist of rain. In fact the production offers much that is visually appealing with set designer Bunnie Christie’s 50s kitchen being replaced by a sea front caf in the second act.

Though Marianne Elliott has directed some of the National’s most vibrant productions (War Horse and Saint Joan among them), this is a static and chilly thing. It’s also rather awkwardly staged: though the performance space extends forwards, with the audience arranged around three sides, much of the action takes place at one end of the set, giving neck ache to those sitting side on. Elliott does however draw some strong performances from her cast. Naomi Frederick endows Audrey with real warmth, while her anguish is more internalised than the others. The splendidly sonorous Angus Wright injects a great deal of charisma into the character of Alfred and Claire Skinner, with crisp vowels and a bitter tongue, copes well with her difficult role. As Rita, she is shrill and brittle in the first half, only to gradually unravel later; she does what she can with the part as written. Wesley Nelson, the young actor playing Oliver, was also excellent.

Good as they are, the performances aren’t enough to pick this play up, to make it live. The 1950s setting feels like a box that’s been dropped on the characters and Rita’s protest that motherhood has made her less of woman in her husband’s eyes, and her desire to reawaken his passion for her, doesn’t ever really feel like the cry of a housewife stifled to the point of implosion, rather the wailing of a terminally self involved individual. One ends up willing him to leave her which somewhat undermines proceedings.

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