‘The Housekeeper’ by Morna Regan.
Production by the Attic Players, Newcastle Emlyn Feb. 28th, 2020
In the Columbia Spectator of August 23, 2013, Agnieszka Sablinska described Morna Regan’s ‘The Housekeeper’ as “30 minutes of a terrifyingly distasteful attempt at comedy involving an old man with Huntington’s disease”. I can only suggest that that show had gone badly wrong in New York and that she should have instead attended the Attic Theatre’s production in Newcastle Emlyn last evening.
After delivering another finely crafted comedy in December for us to enjoy during those now golden hours before we fell over the cliff of the General Election result, the Attic Players earned the right to present much darker and challenging fare last night.
‘The Housekeeper’ introduces itself as a faintly surreal comedy, with a figure wearing a head torch cleaning a darkened room, confronted by another woman wielding a hammer. We are looking in on a house which is self-evidently too large for its current owner-occupiers and has been stormed by a stranger laden with sleeping bags for herself and her children who are in the car outside, waiting for their mother’s ‘all clear’. There follows a dialogue between the two on dispossession, poverty, inheritance and social worth. This claim to squatter’s rights may seem simplistic and twenty years ago would have played as farce. With homeless figures for the UK calculated by Shelter at 320,000 and rising, these arguments now require serious consideration.
Once homeowner Beth realises that interloper Mary is going nowhere else very soon, she realises that this desperate single parent may actually present an opportunity for her to escape from her own version of purgatory. Terms for Mary to earn the right to stay are negotiated. The price will be high. She is to be assigned the task of taking care of Hal, Beth’s husband. Act one ends with Beth on the threshold; finally in a position to leave her own fifteen year long emotionally frozen hell, from which money has failed to provide insulation.
The second act reveals the play’s deeper psychology. Mary’s fragile moral high ground is cruelly undermined by Hal. He wants to continue administering mental torture to his wife that she may share an equivalence of his physical suffering. Offering Mary a healthy inducement to exit his preferred status quo, she all too readily takes the bait -once the price is doubled and underwritten as “tax-free”. Beth exposes Hal’s ploy as just one more in a long line of financial scams. From that point, Mary is witness to the fallout from a desiccated marriage founded on finance and poisoned by a chromosome defection which has taken their only son. There are echoes here of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Mamet’s meditations on the corrupting colours of money.
I tend to resist singling out Attic performers by name in reviews. This is a company devoted to presenting a collective best for their audience and should be considered as one unified team. However, last night, all three artists earned mention. They brought out all the humanity of their three flawed characters, through three flawless performances.
One must hope that, for the sake of his family that John Franks doesn’t subscribe to the method acting school, because tonight he looked physically transformed; weak, ill and impotent. His performance rendered the references in the script to his body odour superfluous; the [metaphorical] reek of his carcass registered in the fifth row. This was a physical performance par excellence, but by no means a two-dimensional characterisation. Even a leftie might feel some sympathy for his Hal. Yes; once a financier with a chilling ethos “the only reason you and people like you are honest is that you’ve never had the opportunity to be anything else.” Now a broken spirit yet still sharp-witted man who knows exactly what it means to be entrapped in a body operating beyond his control. A flaccid bag of a man, leaking foul oaths and bodily fluids from all his orifices; but still able to hold the guilt of condemning his son to an accelerated version of the disease now claiming his own bones. Extraordinary.
Melanie Davies can always be relied upon to change emotional gear with smooth precision. Her initial outward persona is unsympathetic, patronising and spiteful. her Beth becomes, with a costume change, a physically transformed woman. Her now elegant bearing as she prepares to leave Hal, hints at what she may have made of herself if only she could have had the courage and spine to escape her marriage vows and the ties of social convention years earlier. Instead, she has chosen to suffer the humiliations of her husband’s past affairs and his mental cruelty for money and security. She too has her price. As usual, Ms Davies is able to convey so much more than her scripted words offer us.
Carrying the role as the outside agency which disrupts the mechanism of this decaying yet stable relationship, Claire Woolley is assigned the onerous role of onstage witness to events for much of the second act. When you know that the two active players in a passage of action are going to be faultless, one is able to watch more closely the passive third actor. The timing and pitch of Ms. Woolly’s reactions to the scene unfolding before her was timed and pitched to perfection throughout.
Excellent direction through this challenging material was provided by Semele Xerri.
I left the Attic last evening evening feeling emotionally drained rather than uplifted. I think the majority of the audience felt the same. There are some very funny lines in ‘Housekeeper’, but the responsive viewer is quickly ambushed by a rapid rejoinder which strangles the laughter and creates a feeling of disquiet. However, I did feel that I had witnessed something quite profound and illuminating. For this is what theatre -well played theatre, can present to the audience fortunate enough to have been present on that night. As a result of this latest Attic offering, I resolve never to get old and decrepit, or if I have to, at least show a little common decency as I am doing it…
Glenn Ibbitson Feb. 29th 2020