Jumpy, April De Angelis put a woman turning fifty at the heart of the action. For her new play - commissioned specifically to provide the sort of roles for older actresses that are in notoriously short supply - she puts a woman in her eighties centre-stage. Virgie (Marty Cruickshank) has been a moderately successful abstract artist, an inspiration to some but a black sheep in her own family. A hippie free spirit, when her marriage was failing she left her family, leading to her children being taken into care. Haydn (Veronica Roberts,) now a therapist with a tendency to analyse herself and everyone around her in Freudian terms at all times, and Orin (James Wallace,) with a disastrous marriage of his own under his belt, have reconciled with their mother after a fashion, but the youngest daughter was never returned to her, and who she might now be remains a mystery that haunts the whole family.
With this fractious family background, it takes some convincing for Haydn to join her mother for her 81st birthday. But when she and assorted friends arrive at her seaside Essex home, Virgie has a shocking announcement.
On an amiably chaotic set by Michael Taylor, Virgie proves much the same, a force of nature that is instantly appealing to the audience even as those around her show the effects of having to live with her. Virgie wants to drown herself at the end of the birthday party, to end her life while she can still live it as herself. When her friends and family stop her, she goes through a heartbreaking transformation, Cruickshank convincingly bringing to life both these sides of her character.
But there's other strong performances, that make the most of the dark comedy that underpins the play: Virgie's sister Shirley (Rachel Bell,) a former headmistress now in the House of Lords, and responsible for the sort of education reform her sister considers soul-destroying; and a married couple not so much bickering as openly hating each other, novelist Sonia (Kate Fahy) and mediocre actor Tom (Neil McCaul.) The latter also provides the play with a chance to comment on the gender disparity in roles for older actors that initially inspired the play, his current career though unspectacular being consistently busy through the supply of "beards" in Shakespeare plays. (Although if these beard roles include Gloucester in King Lear then his career can't be quite as middling as Sonia makes out.)
We later also get the requisite outsiders' point of view when, in the second act, cab driver Roy (Michael Begley) and Virgie's former student Miranda (Eleanor Wyld) get to give their own takes on the elderly eccentric. The play has some interesting things to say about the kind of behaviour we easily forgive in artists if their work is good enough, but Samuel West's production is stronger in the sharply black comedy of the first act than in the less memorable drama of the second.
After Electra by April de Angelis is booking until the 2nd of May at the Tricycle Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.