The word “celebration” is in the title, but playwright David Storey uses it with a bitter undertow — so much so that only the most idealistic and commercially foolhardy of producers would countenance reviving his 1969 homecoming drama unless armed with some armor-plated casting. Enter Orlando Bloom. Yet it’s still a gamble to put a man largely cast for his ability to deliver looks — not lines — into a play all about things spoken. That the gamble doesn’t really pay off artistically, however, is not entirely Bloom’s fault.
You have to hand it to him. Most movie stars shift to the stage in star vehicles redolent of previous screen success. But Bloom has elected to make his legit debut with a role in an ensemble drama. Furthermore, he is required to ditch his pretty persona in favor of a role as an inwardly distressed thirtysomething struggling to come to terms with his troubled family background.
Along with his older brothers, Bloom’s Steven has benefited from his parents’ struggle to give their children the education needed to avoid life as a coal miner.
Andrew (Paul Hilton), the eldest, trained as a lawyer but has become an abstract artist; unmarried Colin (Gareth Farr) is a wheel within management “in the motor trade”; Steven is a teacher who has just abandoned his long-nursed attempt to write an epic social novel.
All three, the play argues, are warped by their upbringing, principally the dislocating effect of their parents’ different classes. Their miner father was forced to marry a woman from a smarter background when she became pregnant. That child died of pneumonia at the age of 7, when Steven was in the womb and the other two were young.
To a degree, the play is the obverse of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” These three siblings have actually escaped to other parts of the country, yet the return for their parent’s 40th wedding anniversary brings them face to face with the fact that they are still defined by the parental home.
It’s that which governs Anna Mackmin’s production as made manifest by Lez Brotherston’s design. Although the writing restricts events to the faded, neat living room of the cramped house, Brotherston adds an upstairs level with two bedrooms in which we see characters continuing once they have left the action.
Furthermore, the house is self-consciously cut away at the sides and placed on the stage with dead space on either side. Instead of adding to the play, this renders the atmosphere something more diffuse — yet simultaneously defuses tension.
Even more problematically, Mark Henderson’s lighting of the upstairs spaces is so dim, it’s as if the production cannot decide if the aud is supposed to be watching or not.
Downstairs, the actors work hard but, uncharacteristically for Mackmin, they barely mesh as an ensemble, and there are awkward gear changes between some of the cast.
The play’s strongest element is the multifaceted sibling rivalry and rage that reveals itself in contrasting ways: Steven can’t talk, Colin won’t talk, and Andrew can’t shut up.
As Steven, Bloom wears a moustache in a (failed) attempted to age up so he is believable as the father of four children, but he spends the evening in diffident moody introspection. He indicates his character’s gathering distress but lacks the skill to reveal the reasons for it.
A solid Farr contributes a nice line in repressed middle-child peacekeeping. Hilton mainlines on Andrew’s high-definition sarcasm, which masks lacerating rage, in order to drive everything forward.
As their father, Tim Healy opts for a strident denial. That adds bullish comedy, but exactly what he’s hiding remains obscure.
In fact, the play’s (possibly dated) focus is really the mother. We need to see the class obsession, the frigidity and the sense of strangulation that fuels the “disfigured” lives of which her sons speak. But Dearbhla Molloy’s warm performance is so far removed from the accusations that the play’s arguments fail to make emotional sense.
The production’s strongest moment is when Andrew suddenly seizes his mother to dance with her. He whirls her round, and she screams with horrified delight. It’s a sudden heart-stopping stab of love and savagery that exemplifies Mackmin’s overall attempt to undermine stereotype. Valiant though Mackmin’s sympathetic approach is, the production’s contradictory tones and styles neuter too much of the drama.