It was theatrically groundbreaking and gave the world T.S. Eliot’s take on the Heaviside Layer, but “Cats” it most certainly was not. In plot terms, the poet’s 1939 verse-drama “The Family Reunion” totally lives up to its title, but that’s the only straightforward thing about this slippery study of guilt and responsibility. One-part Greek tragedy rewrite, one-part country-house mystery, one-part social satire, this forbidding cocktail of metaphysics needs a firm directorial hand. Mercifully, the Donmar Warehouse revival has an A-grade cast steered with striking subtlety by Jeremy Herrin.
Understatement of the night award goes to less-than-bright Gerald (nicely gruff Paul Shelley) who observes, “I must say, this isn’t cheerful for Amy’s birthday/Or for Harry’s homecoming.”
A typically buttoned-down yet immensely articulate Samuel West is Harry, Eliot’s re-imagining of the Greek hero Orestes. He returns to his chilly family pile in the north of England after wandering for eight years, during which time his wife has died.
Was it an accident? Did she jump? Did he push her? Harry’s imperious mother Amy (a querulous and defiant Gemma Jones) is determined that appearances must be maintained; she demands the desiccated collection of elderly relatives remain silent on the question.
But from the moment he arrives, Harry himself re-opens the wound. Tormented by thoughts and fears, he spends the play unraveling the “truth” about himself, guided principally by his perceptive Aunt Agatha (Penelope Wilton).
For all the play’s intellectual audacity, Eliot’s remorseless questing and self-questioning verse betrays scant regard for dramatic momentum. But by conjuring an atmosphere akin to “The Innocents,” Jack Clayton’s celebrated movie version of Henry James’ not dissimilar “The Turn of the Screw,” Herrin quietly cranks up the ghost-story element to add sorely-needed tension to the proceedings.
The Eumenides, the possibly imaginary Furies who chase Harry, are reimagined as ghastly, creepily perfect, silent children holding butterfly nets, who loom into the room in eerily calm formation after gasp-inducing sudden appearances as if from nowhere.
The design team collude beautifully in the creation of an otherworldly atmosphere, via echoing stranded piano notes in Nick Powell’s score, or in scary shadows cast by Rick Fisher’s footlights, bleaching out the faces of relatives starkly delineated against Bunny Christie’s towering set of dark-paneled walls.
Christie’s low-to-no-waisted costumes also do an impressive job of defining not only the period mood, but Eliot’s satirical take on this stultifying, staid generation.
Una Stubbs’ twittering Violet is extraordinarily touching, holding herself together beneath an immaculate Marcel wave, her pathetic last grasp at gentility in a life actually spent shivering in front of a gas-fire in lowly Bayswater.
The scrupulousness of Herrin’s direction is evident in the smallest roles. In a brief scene of interrogation, Kevin McMonagle is captivating as Harry’s chauffeur and right-hand-man. The image of loyalty, his gravity and posture convey a lifetime of touching deference.
It is watchful Wilton, however, who commands the stage. Embodying her sister’s view that she means “a great deal more than she cares to betray,” her silence speaks volumes. When she releases the family secret that galvanizes Harry to understanding and action, her embodiment of the play’s much-needed theatrical climax is so vivid it rebukes the dramatic inertia with which Eliot has surrounded her.