In a welcome boost for Hampstead Theatre, beginning to find its feet under Edward Hall’s leadership, Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy has transferred to the West End. Given that Ecstasy debuted at Hampstead in 1979, this isn’t a great sign for new writing. It is a good sign for Hampstead, though - even if it has had to look backwards for future hits.
This truthful, low-key play is written and directed by Mike Leigh and has his stamp all over it. There is the central, down-trodden but somehow admirable heroine Jean, imbued with a delicate sense of tragedy by Sian Brooke. There is the sparky but brittle friend and sister, played by an infinitely watchable Sinéad Matthews. And, set in a tiny bed sit in Kilburn, there is that familiar Leigh backdrop of poverty, greyness and, hidden somewhere deep down, spirit and humour.
Worn-out Jean is the focal point and it is in her cramped apartment that Mike Leigh unfurls his dusty and depressing landscape. Designer Alison Chitty creates a claustrophobic environment; a tiny bedroom and kitchen, the walls stopping abruptly and the enclosing area engulfed by black. It is a striking design, which lends this miserable home a faint whiff of magic, as if it is a decrepit old doll’s house that hasn’t been admired in a very long time.
This set is the only faintly surreal touch of the night. The characters look real, their 1970s clothes indistinctive but authentic. The script is strikingly low key and the plot persistently absent. Very little happens and the dialogue is honest but never embellished.
Instead, we get to know these characters through what they do not say, the actions they choose not to take. Each character has a catch phrase, which gathers significance as the play trudges onwards. Jean’s answer to sister Dawn, abusive lover Roy and even nice guy Len is an elongated and flattened out, ‘Yeaaaaahhh.’ It is funny at first but it becomes depressing as we realise this phrase is the carpet under which everything is swept. It is Jean’s comfort blanket and something she uses to smother her friends’ curiosity or concern.
Pink clad, sparkly eyed, squealing Dawn constantly bleats out, ‘That’s lovely’. It becomes her trademark and signals that she has accepted her lot in life, no matter how disappointing it might be. The phrase is gradually ground down until it becomes meaningless. Near the end, Jean passes Dawn a drink and no sooner has Dawn let out those horribly empty words – ‘lovely’ – then she passes out.
The redundancy of words shines out in this occasionally self indulgent but authentic script. Leigh keeps hammering out the same phrases, emphasizing the idea that though these characters talk incessantly they rarely communicate. It might be painfully repetitive at moments but it is effective, too.
What is really interesting is where and why the energy suddenly surges up in Ecstasy. Most of the time, the dialogue is delivered in a monotonous tone, the rhythm predictable and steady. The only moments this sinking symmetry is ruffled is with a violent outburst. Instead of something to be feared, these instances of abuse are almost celebrated. Dawn, in particular, is a magpie for misery. When Jean is nearly beaten up by her lover, Dawn breathlessly recounts the incident. When old friend Len turns up, Dawn badgers him to open up about his recent divorce. The only thing thing that shakes up these characters lives is danger and they have come to relish it, despite it destructive impact.
It isn’t all gloomy though. In the second half the gang, pissed out of their minds (bottles appear from every nook and cranny of Jean’s minuscule but mightily well-stocked apartment), have a sing song. Dawn’s husband, Mick (Allen Leech) begs Jean to sing one of her old numbers. She finally agrees and, as Dawn gyrates manically on the bed (Matthews is a brilliant physical comedienne), Jean sings of summertime, warmth and hope. The younger Jean - the Jean who drove men wild and biked around all day and laughed – rises up again. It is at once comforting and grindingly depressing; a sign that, whilst Jean might not have lost her old self completely, she can’t seem to find a home for this happy, hopeful person anymore.
Till 28 May 2011