In Beth Steel’s uproariously enthralling new play, a wedding unlocks family tensions and wider historic and social schisms in a former Nottinghamshire mining community. Bijan Sheibani’s full-throated production is the latest at the National to feature an absolutely stunning ensemble.
It’s no accident that the play centres on three sisters; Steel creates a Chekhovian blend of comedy and tragedy, amped up by booze and ribald East Midlands bluntness. One of these women married a man because he looked at her “like a potato in a famine”.
In this town the young have no prospects and the old are wondering where it all went wrong. Since the pits closed the main employer is an exploitative distribution warehouse that employs mostly Eastern Europeans. Now Sylvia (Sinéad Matthews) is marrying a beefy Pole, Marek (Mark Wootton), who has made good.
Her older sisters, harried mother-of-two Hazel (Lucy Black) and prodigal sexpot Maggie (Lisa McGrillis) rally round. Their widowed dad Tony and his brother Pete, both ex-miners, don't speak due to something that happened some 40 years earlier. Pete’s wife Aunty Carol (Lorraine Ashbourne), meanwhile, just wants to get mortal and dance to Britney’s Toxic.
Samal Blak’s simple, in-the-round design enlists us as guests: at one point on opening night almost everyone was singing along to Marek’s stilted adaptation of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. But resentment, prejudice and improper passions lurk just beneath the surface. Naturally, things kick off.
Steel has covered this geographical terrain before, in her breakout mining drama Wonderland and the overly ambitious, pan-generational House of Shades. Here, her writing is refined and subtle: she has an overarching historical, even cosmic perspective but never loses sight of the personal.
She gives every character a fair and sympathetic hearing, including Hazel’s troubled, attention-seeking daughters and the monumentally self-absorbed, casually racist Carol. She makes you laugh again and again before delivering a gut punch of emotion. Steel by name…
Matthews, Black and McGrillis are terrific in their portrayal of the conflicted intimacy of sisterhood. Matthew shows us Sylvia’s vulnerability from the start; with the other two it seeps out. Carol is a sublimely monstrous creation by Ashbourne, broadcasting updates on the state of her breasts and bikini line and puking up in order to drink more.
Like so much of the best recent work at the National, this is female-led. But the deceptively affectless Alan Williams is very moving as Tony and also gives us an unexpected but hilarious Tarzan impression. Wootton is all vigour as Marek and delivers one of the play’s sharpest lines to his sneering, struggling new in-laws: “You need to decide if you are victim or superior, because you can’t be both.”
Only a niggling sense that too many betrayals, prejudices and disappointments are too neatly contained in the one family stops me giving this show the full five stars. But it’s still an early contender for the best play of the year.