Review: The Family Reunion at the Donmar Warehouse

Tuesday 25 November 2008

the-family-reunionOne of the many differences between the Whingers is that Andrew doesn’t really “do” parties whereas Phil will seize on any event as an excuse to hold a party – a general election, the Eurovision Song Contest, the arrival of his water bill and so on.

But with one voice they can agree that the birthday party around which T.S. Eliot pegs The Family Reunion is one they would find any excuse to miss.It’s a great shame, not least because the Whingers dropped in on the very evening that its star, Penelope Wilton, had been named Best Actress in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, an honour she shared with her Chalk Garden co-star Margaret Tyzack.

There are some striking similarities between The Family Reunion and The Chalk Garden: the country house setting, the air of the unsolved mystery, the fact that it’s on at the Donmar.

But there are also some big differences. Whereas The Chalk Garden was very funny, The Family Reunion is in fact unutterably dull for most of its two long hours and 40 long minutes. If Professor Stephen Hawking were interested in doing some practical experiments with the bending of time he could do no better than pop down to London and take in a matinee of La Cage Aux Folles (where 160 minutes passes in about 55 minutes) followed by The Family Reunion in the evening (which seems to take about four hours). Physics with metaphysics.

And it’s not for the lack of talent. There’s Miss Wilton doing her stuff. And Mr Samuel West. And Miss Gemma Jones as the matriarch at the centre of it all. And Mr William Gaunt.

And Miss Una Stubbs! In an utterly mesmerising wig (respect to Linda McKnight) In the event that you can’t get out of seeing this play at least ensure that your seats are in the circle so that you can see it in all its glory; it is a hairdo that must receive an aerial view – hire a helicopter if you must.64623-marcel1

Come the interval all debate amongst the Whingers’ party was focussed on what hairstyle Una was sporting. Styles such as Shingle and Marcel Wave were bandied around, but they finally agreed it must be a Marcel (right). Anyway it’s the tightest and most spectacular Marcel wave they’ve ever seen and Miss Stubbs sports it with aplomb.

That aside, this is a verse play and the trouble with poets is that they grant themselves licence to write things which are at best abstruse and at worst simply wrong and nobody pulls them up on it. The Family Reunion is full of such nonsense: “joy is a kind of pain”. No it isn’t. Poor Miss Wilton is called upon to say “the knot shall be unknotted and the cross uncrossed” some dozen times and another of her speeches requires her to use the word “expiation” three times, which is really not a good use of Miss Wilton’s talent or anyone’s else’s time.

Poor old Violet (Anna Carteret) is saddled with fuurther guff: “Things that are going to happen have already happened” but to be fair there are moments of lucidty. Near the end she declares:  “I cannot understand a single thing that has happened” and the Whingers nodded empathetically.

It is customary in reviews of  less familiar plays to give some inkling of the plot but on this occasion the Whingers think that would be unfair as the idea of a story of a son returning home for the first time in 10 years following the mysterious death of his wife who may have jumped, fallen or been pushed from an ocean liner might mislead you into thinking something interesting will come of it. Well, it doesn’t.

Mr Eliot was clearly a very clever man* with lots of ideas but an absolute inability to communicate them coherently, hence his need to fall back on writing poetry. Although we should point out that we do not dismiss all poetry out of hand. Pam Ayres can be very entertaining:

I am a bunny rabbit sitting in me hutch,
I like to sit up this end, I don’t care for that end much.
I’m glad tomorrow’s Thursday ’cause with a bit of luck
As far as I remember that’s the day they pass the buck.

We suppose it is simply one of those cruel tricks of history that Mr Eliot didn’t live long enough to take a few lessons from our greatest living poet. It’s hard to believe that T S Eliot (famously anagrammed as toilets) is the same writer who penned a popular musical that ran for most of the last century round the corner from the Donmar.

Phil was so bored the only thing he could be bothered to write in his notes during the first act was “annoying sniffer” not realising that the culprit was actually Andrew. In a desperate bid to occupy his mind he went on to study another annoying audience member in the front row who watched the play with an eye-catching intensity and faux intelligence. It was a performance to rival those on the stage, but even he couldn’t sustain it in the second act during which he visibly slumped as if he, like the Whingers, had also lost the will to live.

There were a few diversions: the wig, obviously, the appearance of three children from Village of the Damned but it turned out from the programme that they were actually Eurmenides and we’re not ashamed to admit that we had to look them up. The production also boasts the most gloriously inept on-stage flower arranging (and re-arranging) in the history of British theatre. But sadly none of this could compensate for the longest night ever spent not knowing what anyone was talking about.

The lighting (Rick Fisher), sound (Nick Powell) and set (Bunny Christie) are all excellent, creating a strange unsettling atmosphere and the acting is mainly fine, but silk purses and sow’s ears came to mind as it all came to naught in the end.


*Apart from being dashed clever, old Tom was a great practical joker prone to putting whoopee cushions under his guests seats or offering them exploding cigars – Groucho Marx was a huge fan apparently. Phil was tempted to try the cushion gag under Andrew last night but feared no one would notice any difference.

T.S.Eliot fans will be excited to learn that this production is part of a “landmark Festival” which also features one-night only rehearsed readings of The Cocktail Party and Murder in the Cathedral

If you have to go, think of it lesss as a family reunion and  more of a TV reunion celebrating the golden days of telly. The Donmar’s thrust was groaning with stars from that period. A TV convention could only dream of assembling such luminaries from those heady days:

5676Gemma Jones (The Duchess of Duke Street 1976-77), Penelope Wilton (Ever Decreasing Circles 1984-89), Una Stubbs (Till Death us do Part), Anna Carteret (Juliet Bravo 1980-85), William Gaunt (Phil’s favourite The Champions 1968-69, see right), Paul Shelley (Secret Army 1977-79), not to mention Sam West son of Sybil Fawlty (1975/79) and Edward the Seventh (1975) and Hattie Morahan (daughter of Juliet Bravo star Carteret and Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67) director Christopher Morahan).

14 Responses to “Review: The Family Reunion at the Donmar Warehouse”

  1. Helen Smith Says:

    Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth. Etc.

  2. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    Untouchable Eliot Mess?

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    Bless your little black hearts for saving me from this mess. Perhaps I’ll stay home with my uncle and play a little pinochle on my free night now.

  4. PSB Says:

    I too have suffered this play, I think it was in 2000, and an RSC production. It was probably the worst night in the theatre I have ever endured, and the recollection of it makes my heart sink to this day. Sitting front row centre (a schoolgirl error) I struggled stay awake in the face of the incomprehensible nonsense. I’m sure the performances and the production were impeccable….but the play……if only Greg Hicks (for twas he in the lead role) had stripped to the waist and covered himself in blood as he is wont to do, it wouldn’t have felt so much like a punishment.

  5. deborah Says:

    Is this a review though? Or an essay about some blokes’ inability to concentrate for a couple of hours? Although a really difficult and potentially inpenetrable play, I thought this production was extraordinarily graceful and dignified and generous, and worthy of much more than this piffle.

  6. LaBrosse Says:

    Dear deborah,
    Visiting the Whingers and then complaining about “piffle” is a bit like visiting Spud-u-Like and complaining about all the potatoes. The top class piffle is what we come here for.

  7. she with he of Xanadu on stage seating Says:

    I think it shows true friendship for “He of Xanadu on stage seating” to have read the Whingers review of F.R. and STILL turned up to join me at yesterday’s performance.

    Could the Whingers have got it as wrong as they did for La Cage? No, they were spot on, but obviously have more stamina that us as we beat a hasty retreat at the interval, to be joined by a sizeable perecentage of the audience at the pub. How much rehearsal did these usually reliable performers have? Each and every one of them seemed to have a blank moment with slips or straightforward loss of words. I have now seen 2 and a half productions of this play and believe it to be unplayable.

  8. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    Deborah –

    Have you inadvertently strayed over from the ‘Imagine This’ thread?

  9. People seem to be approaching the poetry as if it stands or falls all in one lump. I found many moments and passages wonderful, but I also giggled at more than a handful.

    I also found it noticeable that the younger actors were far better at making the lines sound like actual spoken dialogue; they weren’t not-treating it as verse, just treating it principally as dialogue, which seemed to be the way forward.

    And I think it would be wonderful if the three little boys playing the Furies were to pick one theatregoer at each performance and follow them as they exited. Just to the street door would be enough. Wonderfully disconcerting.

  10. l am sure you have your own opinions.
    and yes l am fortunate l have my own teeth too!
    The Internet has many more positive reviews
    on this them other than this trivial
    guff about Una Stubbss hairdoo! My birthday
    is in another day and I am dreading it!
    I would love to go see Family Reunion with
    William Gaunt in it! Rather than put up
    with people and relatives I Have absolutely
    no interest in seeing on my birthday.
    So stop whinging! I am sure there is a queen
    in there somewhere. To make it worse
    l have just dropped my iPhone and its giving
    me electric shocks in my finger tips. Now l
    have a right to whinge. People who
    read this post and comments go and see the
    play and enjoy yourselves heck l would if
    l could. There are a set of adorable blue eyes
    up on that stage till January.

  11. Chris Says:

    The Whingers may sometimes provide some useful insight into theatrical goings on, but never trust their seating recommendations (see my comment on Blowing Whistles review). There is absolutely no need to sit in the circle to get the full effect of Ms Stubbs wig. It can be admired in its full glory from the stalls, where it seems to have a life of its own clamped tightly to La Stubbs’ cranium like some parasitic alien out of Dr. Who! At the Donmar you should always try and sit in the stalls, whatever the production!

  12. Mike Stone Says:

    Referring to PSB’s derogatory remarks about Adrian Noble’s RSC production of the Family Reunion, my memory is of one of the finest ensemble acting performances I have ever seen. I was not alone. I would be very surprised if the Donmar cast did not equal or even surpass the RSC.

  13. Peter 888 Says:

    well I’ve just got back from the ‘Reunion’ and it was bloody brilliant. Advice to Whingers: ‘Don’t waste your time going to plays which were not written with people like you in mind’

  14. Ric Says:

    God, the whingeing in the row behind me last night. She loathed it, muttering away like the loony on the bus, and he was so wet and apologetic they left at the interval. Whew. At least that freed up some space for those of us enjoying one of the best productions I’ve seen in a very long time You looked up the Eumenides? You still spelt them wrong.

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