In a real house somewhere in suburban Brighton, three grown-up siblings debate their futures and their past. There’s Andrea, the cool and collected nymphomaniac; Peter, whose mother Lavinia has never accepted he’s gay; and Charles, who’s married to Jean, but seems to be having an affair. The sexual tensions are obvious, but there are other pressures too – simmering arguments over money, memories of childhood unkindness – and so the stage is set for an entertaining, affecting and thoroughly believable drama, played out across several decades and throughout the rooms of the family home.
The framing story for all of this – that we’re guests at an Artists Open House exhibition interrupted by a family argument – is exciting at first, but that clever concept is quickly forgotten in favour of just pretending that the audience isn’t there. Still, the play makes excellent use of the whole house, sending us upstairs, downstairs and out into the conservatory as we piece together the lengthy series of events that culminates in that embarrassing public row. Sylvia Vickers’ direction is both creative and practical, sensitive to the constraints of an unusual performance space, and the actors are well-versed in the peculiar site-specific skill of filling in time until their audience arrives – often creating that magical feeling that we’ve genuinely stumbled in on events that were already taking place.
With scenes dotting backwards and forwards through family history, the cast have plentiful opportunity to demonstrate their skills impersonating children. There’s a real sense of fun to many of these scenes – particularly one memorable sequence swapping theories about the birds and the bees – but there’s some quiet tragedy too, with childhood traumas made all the more heart-rending by being played by an adult-sized actor. Gillian Eddison, meanwhile, channels the wickedest witch you can possibly imagine as the family’s cold-hearted matriarch, sometimes bringing a little deadpan humour to the role but never allowing her character to tip over into overt parody.
One of the delights of Wired Theatre’s work is that they’re prepared to take an idea and run with it – often past the point where less experienced, more nervy performers would have lost confidence and turned tail. In this case, their self-belief is magnificently vindicated, with a seemingly unending post-funeral scene that’s more eloquent in silence than dialogue could ever be. Another lengthy sequence, where Jean slowly dresses her husband, is a tender highlight too – showing that scenes can sometimes gain dramatic punch when they’re played with deliberate gentleness.
For a while, I thought we were headed for a less-than-happy ending, an acknowledgement that in the real world some shocks are too much for a relationship to bear. In the event, the conclusion’s sweet and satisfying – but it lacks the spark of unpredictability which defines the rest of the play. Never mind; the storyline up to that point is excellent, mysterious at first yet crystal-clear by the end, and delivering some thought-provoking surprises. This has to rate as one of Wired Theatre’s best works in recent years… and I’m already looking forward to what they’ll do next time.