David Storey’s 1969 play In Celebration (Duke of York’s) brings us firmly into an England that is thoroughly different to today’s society, but strangely recognisable too. Storey was brought up in a mining family in the North, and this familiar background is also the setting for his play. The Shaw family are coming together to celebrate Mrs Shaw’s 60th Birthday (and 40 years of marriage incidentally). Her three male children have left the rows and rows of back to back houses and now have their own lives far away, which their father has made sure did not involve the back braking and dangerous works that he is engaged in. The family is unsure of itself, they do not sit altogether easily with each other, underlying tension and alienation are evident. After all Mr and Mrs Shaw don’t have a telephone to speak to their distant sons, and emotions are restrained by the nature of the times and culture anyway. Their sons haven’t lived under their roof for many a year, and a once a year visit seems the limit of their relationships. In these circumstances how can you really know who these people you call your family are? It’s not long before that alienation and tension break out into open resentment and full scale arguments. But I was never quite sure what this was really all about. One son (the showy artist) has a grievance against his mother, involving another brother who died in childhood, but this sense of grievance is not shared by his more conventional siblings, and angers them and his father. If this is simply a ‘they fuck you up, your mum and fad’ sentiment, then he was being quite self centred in his actions (certainly knowing that it would never be properly discussed and would only cause trouble. Leave well alone would have been my advice). If it was something more, I’m afraid it was lost to Northern reticence and perhaps mumbling from the actors.
The play is set in the front room of their small house, the set (by Les Brotherston) meticulously creating a palpable sense of time and place (the picture of the Queen, the coal scuttle etc. Anyone with working class Grandparents can relate to it, except sans coal and with a brown 1980’s push button TV set). Direction by Anna Mackmin seemed a little on the slow side, but I think the play is partly to blame. Paul Hilton dominated the stage as Andrew, the iconoclastic oldest son, who has dropped out of the law to become an artist, he was perhaps a tad too young looking for his supposed 40 stage years, but Hilton is such a great actor it hardly matters. Tim Healy is the gruff father and Dearbhla Molloy the very proper Mother. The ‘star’ amongst the cast, Orlando Bloom, fails to set the stage alight as the youngest son Steven, a taciturn and nervous looking young man, but his acting was certainly passable.
At the end of the evening I’d seen a slice of life drama, but gotten very little out of it, I didn’t really understand the characters very well, and my sympathies were not stirred in any direction. My main though when leaving the auditoria was, regarding the feuding brothers, who speaks like that in real life? David Story is a talented dramatist, recent viewings of his plays The Changing Room and Home have convinced me of that (and of course the film, This Sporting Life), but this production didn’t live up to the high expectations I had of it.