In recent weeks, I had the opportunity to see the earlier work of two playwrights who are now at the top of their game: Bruce Norris’ Purple Heart, written more than a decade ago, still plays at the Gate Theatre and Richard Bean’s Smack Family Robinson, written in 2003, just started its run at the Rose Theatre Kingston. Both playwrights have gone to receive much acclaim as well as win numerous awards and a look at their early plays is fascinating.
Smack Family Robinson (originally written in 2003 and set in Whitley Bay but updated to present time and Kingston for this production) tells the story of middle class suburbia but with a twist. Or is it twisted middle class suburbia? Either way, the Robinsons are typical in their strong community bonds, their family squabbles, their 60s-free-love values turning into consumerism. On the other hand, their source of income is, one hopes, unusual. The clue is in the title. Tensions between received wisdom and true morality, expectations and reality, are at the heart of the play.
The production, directed by Richard Wilson, is often riotously funny, especially when it focuses on grim realistic details only to undercut them by expectations of middle class status and morality. At its best, the tension deliciously bubbles only to erupt with the absurdities of life. At other times, the story struggles to reconcile a parablelike approach with the tangible realism of time and place.
Some of the weaknesses are with the play: characterisation occasionally falls victim to the gags. Another problem comes with the update: with high definition television sets, smartphones and ipads, the story is clearly set in present time. But Keith Allen and Denise Welch aren’t old enough to play characters who were young adults in the sixties. I don’t have an obsessive preoccupation with timelines, but it was distracting trying to think how old these people were meant to be.
By and large, the acting is first rate: Keith Allen and Denise Welch bring a fitting and engaging mischievousness to their characters, and Kate Lamb radiates intelligence and strength, the steely core of a mad world. Harry Melling turns a delightful performance, deluded, cold, expressionless and still very expressive, a Tony Montana for the english suburbs (if Scarface was a comedy that is). I was less impressed with Matthew Wilson, whose performance felt broad and not specific enough.
It’s a spirited production of a spirited play, with many laughs and biting moments. Even through its weaknesses, it busts open myths of modern success in a thoroughly engaging, mischievously underhanded, way. You can read Revstan’s take on the production over at her blog.
P.S. Looking at the programme, Arabella Weir is credited as assistant director. As the programme says “this is Arabella’s first experience” in this role.