House of Shades: Anne-Marie Duff and Stuart McQuarrie
On Theatre

Steel works

Beth Steel’s House of Shades is a confident new nod to the tradition of multi-generation family sagas

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The appetite for multi-generation family sagas never wanes from the daddy-issues of Agamemnon and Orestes to Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (recast as a drama for Radio 4).

Beth Steel’s House of Shades is a confident new nod to this tradition — a blend of Greek tragedy, ghost story and state-of the nation examination — across 50 years from 1965 and an era of technological optimism under Labour to the sturm und drang of the Thatcher years, concluding with a review of Brexit and its choppy backwash.

House of Shades chronicles the levelling-down of swathes of the country and the consequences today

Steel’s Nottinghamshire background gives her a familiarity with the foibles and tics of a working-class family on the front line of political wars and a fresher take than most of her theatrical peers on the EU referendum: “Everyone was shocked by the result except me because my town had voted 70 per cent to leave,” she has said.

The House of Shades is a call for audiences to understand the uprising of working-class Britain against a placid liberal establishment, as well as an attempt to situate it in a broad sweep of de-industrialisation and vast changes in economic structures in the 1980s which resonate in the identity and problems of “left-behind” Britain to this day.

The Websters are a scrappy, conflicted Nottinghamshire dynasty, headed by Constance Webster (Anne-Marie Duff), a charismatic, embittered former miner’s wife, who burns with fury at the outcome of the strike and channels her anger into a tendency to tear down her family in random rages — and fantasy sequences of her youthful desire to be a singer, a nice nod to Dennis Potter’s legacy.

Duff ’s technical ability to suggest fragility and toughness in the same character gives her role real power and there is an authenticity in Steel’s writing about northern family life which I recognize from growing up in similar Durham ex-mining communities. Constance’s husband, Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie), is a bookish shop steward whose dreamworld consists of being visited by the ghost of Aneurin Bevan down at the allotment.

Steel’s inspiration for this mix of fantasy and realism was the adaptation of The Oresteia at the Almeida a decade or so ago and the Greek references come thick and fast, with a Greek chorus of commentary and characters slipping in and out of death and life. When the Websters’ boy, Jack, marries a Tory (an event as shocking to most of the Islington Almeida audience as it would have been in pit-town Labour monoculture), the narrowness of the family belief system gets a brief shake-up.

It’s a shout-out from me for her independence from the hive-brain. She gives a complex saga of hope and disillusion rare heft and energy

State-of-the-nation stories need to be selective in their focus to avoid becoming a three-hour crammer session of selective facts — and as we roll on through the story, we’re confronted with loan sharks, bad high street sportswear companies and a host of other references which feel too much like a newspaper clippings service.

If there is an overload of average woe-is-us British drama, House of Shades also shows raw promise and edge. Duff’s ability to glitter with rage when she tells her daughter that rather than run the home as a wife and mother she “wanted to smash it up” reminds us that the role of working-class matriarch, from the Arnold Wesker school, reflects the lives of women who would rather have lived an entirely different existence. There are themes of betrayal, disappointment and how long to nurture political and personal grievances.

House of Shades chronicles the levelling-down of swathes of the country and the consequences today. It is far from a perfect play and Steel (writer in residence at the National Theatre) needs to curb a tendency to stuff too much into a plot and cull some of the glibber analyses of capitalism’s shortcomings which teeter into Private Eye’s Dave Spart territory.

Still, it’s a shout-out from me for her independence from the hive-brain. In a world of identikit takes on the Thatcher years, New Labour sellouts and urbanista Remoaning, she gives a complex saga of hope and disillusion rare heft and energy.

Blanche McIntyre’s elegant production and Anna Fleischle’s set of northern urban landscapes, fleeting snows and factory backdrops triumph over the Almeida’s staging limitations.

It would not have been impossible, in one of Constance’s dreamworld sequences, for Eliza Doolittle, that eternally charming social climber inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, to drop by and offer a consolatory dance routine. Bartlett Sher’s production of My Fair Lady moves shortly from the Coliseum to a run through the regions with Amara Okereke in the lead as Eliza.

It’s encouraging that this moment of a beautiful and talented young star taking on the role of the very white Eliza has passed without much hoopla at all. I am, as Peter Mandelson would say, “supremely relaxed” about casting in colour for trad roles as long as the talent fits the mix and Okereke shines in a production which, for all of Sher’s capacity to capture frustration and aesthetics, foundered a bit in the vast setting of the Coliseum. Still, on it will roll and Okereke brings a new-gen irreverence and many glottal stops to the part. She could have danced all night and somewhere, for all eternity in a theatre near you, Eliza will do just that.

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