Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Theatre review: Chalet Lines

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the final preview performance.

Madani Younis makes his debut as Artistic Director at the Bush with Lee Mattinson's Chalet Lines, which follows a family of Newcastle women backwards through the decades as they revisit a holiday camp, the scene of many tense encounters between mothers and daughters. Linking the scenes is Barbara (Gillian Hanna,) celebrating her 70th birthday as we join them in a shabby chalet bedroom. She's accompanied by oldest daughter Loretta (Monica Dolan) and granddaughters Abigail (Laura Elphinstone) and Jolene (Robyn Addison.) But as Barbara makes no bones about expressing to Loretta's face, all she really cares about is the absence of her other, favourite daughter. We don't meet Paula (Sian Breckin) until the action jumps back to the 1990s, Loretta's daughters are teenagers, and she too has a clear favourite: Pretty and gregarious Jolene will presumably be easy to marry off but wallflower Abigail is to be berated at all times for her shortcomings.

Mattinson paints a very bleak picture of Northern women trapped in an endless cycle of loveless marriages. After the interval we go back to where it all started, Dolan now playing Barbara's mother Edith, a chillingly authoritarian Catholic forcing her daughter to marry a man she doesn't love (and who isn't the father of the unborn, unwanted Loretta.) There's the odd funny line providing gratefully-received relief but mainly Chalet Lines is an unremittingly miserable play. Like Barbara's wedding dress, which gets passed down the generations, so does the mantra that the girls will only be happy is they get married; and once married the lie that they actually are happy must be repeated until even she starts to believe it. When Abigail and Jolene, in the present-day scenes, look likely to break the cycle, Loretta fights tooth and nail to prevent it: If this lifelong entrapment is avoidable, then it makes it so much worse that she herself failed to avoid it.

I thought that in the second act, the 1960s scene at least changed the dynamic a bit, but Ian who was unconvinced at the interval was even more unforgiving by the end. The trouble is, the opening scene hasn't made us care about these women whose Cava-fuelled bile we'll be experiencing for the next few hours. Though not as enjoyable as a good joke, I think there's as much skill in writing an utterly vicious insult that can make an audience gasp at the unfairness of it, and a mother hurling cruelties at her daughter seems to be the ultimate shocker of this kind. Mattinson clearly has a talent for these barbs but his script is relentlessly littered with them. As Jolene cakes Abigail's face in makeup with all the viciousness that Edith used to wipe Barbara's off, the cruelty becomes too regular an occurrence to elicit these gasps.

There's a lot of positive points; Younis has coaxed excellent performances from all five women (who covered very well when Breckin had an accident on the steep stage; Ian and I couldn't quite have sworn it wasn't part of the play.) And designer Leslie Travers' breathtaking set of an exploded Butlins chalet is a thing of beauty, incorporating Tim Mascall's lighting to create a sense of magic deliberately at odds with the reality of the people staying there. But the play itself is what I couldn't warm to. It's wrong to judge an Artistic Director on their first show, but it's hard not to take it as a kind of statement of intent and in that context it's hard to see what Younis is trying to say with this choice of opener. Ian suggested "come to the Bush and be depressed."

Chalet Lines by Lee Mattinson is booking until the 5th of May at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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