Wednesday December 12, 2001 | thanks betty and sarah
Eddie Izzard has taken over from Clive Owen as the schoolmaster-husband in the transfer of Peter Nichols's extraordinary play from the Ambassadors; and the result is fascinating. Owen is the more experienced actor, but Izzard supplies the faintly surreal comedy and vaudevillian timing sorely missing on the original first night.
This matters in two ways. Nichols's play is about two parents, Bri and Sheila, who have concocted fantasy games and joke rituals to cope with bringing up a severely handicapped daughter: unless we feel that the jokes have started using them the play never fully takes off. Nichols's originality lies in his cauterising blend of pain and laughter: it's precisely his avoidance of the suffocating tastefulness of stock, naturalistic medical drama that makes this such a profitably disturbing play.
Izzard is inspired casting. From his first appearance, with embryonic blond beard and striped trousers like some academic misfit, he makes us laugh. And he brings to the role-playing he shares with Victoria Hamilton's Sheila the instincts of a natural clown. His German-accented paediatrician is a music hall scientist carrying on an imaginary colloquy with a colleague in the wings. Even better is his effete, empathising vicar who launches into a lunging, loony tap-dance to demonstrate the possibility of miracles. Izzard's Bri, exactly as Nicholas intended, is a man who has become trapped in his self-delighting defence mechanisms.
Izzard is slightly less potent in the second half when Bri is spurred into drastic action to end the situation. But that scarcely matters because by then Nichols has passed the dramatic baton to other hands. In fact, he widens the debate to show the helpless alternatives to Bri's despairing jokiness and attempted euthanasia. John Warnaby's wonderfully bullish, do-gooding friend, Freddie, demonstrates the fallibility of liberal sympathy. Robin Weaver as Freddie's squeamish wife is a chilling portrait of nuclear family selfishness. Prunella Scales as Bri's smothering mother offers a lethally funny picture of the dangers of a closed mind protectiveness.
But, on a second viewing, it is clear that Victoria Hamilton's Sheila is the rock on which Laurence Boswell's production is built. She not only has Sheila's sexiness, optimism and blind faith in remedial possibilities: she also plays off Izzard's Bri perfectly so that their games become like practised marital rituals which erupt into a wild giggling spontaneity. It is through Hamilton that we realise that the play is, among many other things, a study in female resilience and the power of the life force, which is what makes it one of the classic postwar comedies.