Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy comes to the West End on a surge of praise and goodwill from critics and punters alike. It’s just had a sell-out run in Hampstead, where they trotted down the hill to the Swiss Cottage theatre in their droves to look at all the actors playing the Kilburn poor.
In the face of this unanimity, I’m afraid my own position is less one of ecstasy than of apostasy. I think Ecstasy has had its day. Originally devised in 1979, and performed six months into Thatcher’s premiership, it must have crackled with an altogether heretical energy at the time. Set in a Kilburn bedsit (something I feel qualified to talk about), the actors are cooped and cramped in a tiny section of the stage; the crappy 1950s furniture takes equal billing with the actors as chief protagonists. There’s poverty, material and linguistic: the characters’ chat is inconsequential, redundant, a raid on the inarticulate; no one does the sad carouse as well as Mike Leigh.
A devised show is a strange and wondrous beast. A combination of research and improvisation can mean dialogue that rarely gets beyond the pedestrian, but dialogue is rarely the point. There are also jackpot accidents of timing, the sort of special comedy that can only be spontaneous, and above all a more than compensating sense of physicality — the performers’ rhythms, the way they move, tends to be more important than what they are saying. The director’s job is to splice together the best bits, and make a patterning of sorts out of the inchoate.
This is apparently the first time that Leigh has revisited one of his devised pieces (it was originally created with Stephen Rea, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Sheila Kelley), and I’m not so sure it was well-advised. Stepping into a devised role is worse than wearing someone else’s shoes. The roles are more than bespoke, they are emanations from the original actors.
The current batch do a doughty job at their impersonations: Siân Brooke’s gin-soaked petrol pump attendant Jean is a twentysomething trapped in a fiftysomething’s body, which she jerks around like a tired marionette; stiffened, ground down, careworn. Ebullient friend Dawn (Sinéad Matthews) gets impressively pissed, sliding away from her object, whether it’s the loo or a glass of water, and does spectacular dances. Of her wedding, she remembers only “the toilets in The Old Bell” (my local, during the bedsit years). She speaks with the smoky croak of fags and booze. Craig Parkinson’s jilted Len has an unassuming, bespectacled poise and quietude. His kindly, if tautologous, comment on Jean’s bedsit is, “it’s small, but it’s compact”.
Kilburn High Road as a wrackline for immigrants — these characters wash up from the Midlands, mostly, as well as Ireland, in the case of Dawn’s husband (who is called, not unexpectedly, Mick) — is a fecund idea. As is the desperation and emptiness of working lives, perfectly summed by Alison Chitty’s set, where the dead flowers on the telly sit next to an empty packet of Roses chocolates.
But for all the cast’s virtuoso ventriloquism, there’s a certain physical charge, typical of the devised show, which is lacking. It’s way too long, and has some structural wrinkles that are in the “good idea at the time” category: Roy, who makes a couple of early appearances as Jean’s violent lover, and even more so Val, his hell hath no fury wife, should perhaps have been allowed a merciful death, even in 1979. And did we really need Jean’s spelled-out breakdown at the end, when it could have, should have, remained unsaid?
In the programme the artistic director at Hampstead, Edward Hall, cites Ecstasy as an example of what subsidy can achieve by way of the new and the risk-taking, which I think is a little wide of the mark, considering this is now a 32-year-old play, directed by an über-bankable auteur. Given that Hampstead does have a new, devised show — running from 12 May — without the imprimatur of Leigh, perhaps such rhetoric is best saved for the genuine, contemporary article.
“Ecstasy” runs at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2 until 28 May.