The Anniversary - Review

A couple of seasons back the New Venture introduced us to the hostess from Hell in that excellent production of Dinner. Not to be out done Jerry Lyne has chosen to let us meet the mother from that infernal place.

Bill Macllwraith's black comedy revolves around an annual family gathering that celebrates a wedding anniversary, albeit that the husband is absent from it. In fact he is deceased but it is Mum's wish that she has all her family with her to celebrate the occasion and to take part in the toast to Dad.

Mum is a truly monstrous creation and the family assemble unwillingly to attend this ritual for they know from past experience that, like other rituals, victims will be sacrificed before the night is over. Rebellion is in the air and all are fearful of their mother's reaction.

Jerry Lyne, making a return to directing after too long an absence, ensured that the production flowed well with a tautness that was never lost. The realistic stage setting and choice of music ensured that the sixties, the period that the play took place in, was fully evoked. For many of us the evening had more than a touch of nostalgia.

And what a cast he picked! Not only was it strong in talent but it also was one that had bonded together during the rehearsal period and were finely tuned in to each other.

As Tom, the youngest son, Matthew Lawson, exhibited both the character's bravado and vulnerability. His act of rebellion was to introduce to the family on this sacrosanct occasion, Shirley, and to announce their engagement. Emma Hallworth's performance as the fiancée was beautifully rounded. A fluffy exterior harboured a feisty determination. Her fight back against Mum was wonderful in its viciousness.

Son Terry and wife, Karen also had some unwelcome news to impart — they were planning to go off to Canada. Jim Calderwood impressed by giving another of his portrayals of a neurotic character. Angst and ulcer ridden, forever trying to put off the moment of making the announcement, he was a soul in torment. As his long suffering wife Tessa Pointing was almost Lady Macbeth like as she urged her unwilling husband on. She had some wonderful caustic speeches which she delivered with vitriolic spleen.

The remaining son Henry is unmarried and is the apple of his mother's eye. He poses no threat and is content to be controlled. She indulges him in his habit of wearing women's clothes and uses his brush with the law to manipulate his brothers. It was good to see Mike Chowney back on stage again and his quiet playing of Henry was in sharp contrast to the hysteria of his two brothers.

But it is Mum who is the central character and what a part it offers a gifted actor and they do not come more gifted than Sheelagh Baker. Her acting skills are consistent and she has given some exceptional performances in the past but here she surpassed herself.

Watching her destroy her family and partners was like seeing a praying mantis devouring her victims — there was repulsion but also fascination. The mood swings were lightning fast — a vicious attack segued into charm but always there was an undercurrent of malevolent cunning.

I recall that when I saw The Beauty Queen of Leenane I was so incensed by the cunning and wicked mother created by Janet Hewlett-Davies that I wanted to hit the woman. Baker's performance was so powerful that I could have murdered her. Such was the emotion generated by the production that it was difficult to resist cheering the family when they all turned on Mum and one felt that she had at last been defeated. Imagine the free fall of elation when she played her last trick and won again.
On leaving the theatre, still quivering with intense emotion and exhilaration, I reflected that the fine direction and quality acting placed this high, if not first, on my list of finest NV productions.

Barrie Jerram
27 June 2008