Leaves of Glass

Reviewer's Rating

This play by Philip Ridley was first shown in 2007 at the Soho Theatre where it was a considerable success with Ben Whishaw and Maxine Peake in lead roles. It now returns to the intimate space of Park 90 in darkly intense but also comedy-inflected production with a truly excellent cast.

The preparatory blurb for this play describes it as a modern classic – that would be an exaggeration. The opening sections are overlong in exposition (often the way with memory dramas that play tricks with narrative), and the darkness at the heart of it is one that is now tragically over-familiar. But as a family drama in which you are drawn into a hall of gaslit mirrors, and left both engrossed and bewildered as to where the truth might lie, it is exemplary.

The title is an edgy riff on Whitman’s memory epic ‘Leaves of Grass’ and this sets the tone for what is to come. At its heart is the relationship of two brothers, Steve and Barry, both in flight in different ways from the traumatic death of their father, and, as we later learn, from events either side of it. Steve has made a success of his life, as head of a graffiti-removal business, whereas we early on see Barry overcome with alcohol and mental-health issues, and unable to hold down a job in Steve’s firm. However, as the play progresses the roles are gradually reversed, and it is Steve whose life gradually falls apart so that in a traumatic scene near the end, Barry forces Steve to confront key elements of their shared past with Steve hiding in darkness in the cellar of his house.

Throughout you are invited to question not only who is telling the truth, but whether there actually is a truth to be revealed, rather than simply individual interpretations, whether innocent or wilful mistellings. Both Ned Costello and Ned Potter are truly excellent in revealing the uncomfortable layers of their characters, and in both holding back and lashing out. There are also several points of both intimacy and combat which are powerfully put across, so credit should go also to the professional coordinator, Lawrence Carmichael.

The same shapeshifting of language and character applies, in slightly different ways to the two women in the cast. Kacey Ainsworth offers an authoritative, yet still elliptical portrayal of their mother, Liz, over-protective, unwilling to let go, yet all too ready to retreat into obfuscation and denial whenever difficult subjects loom into view. The family is completed by Steve’s wife, Debbie, played by Katie Buchholz, who makes the most of a somewhat two-dimensional character. It is her announcement of pregnancy that starts the unravelling of everyone else’s past.

There are distinct echoes of Eastenders in both the characters, the range of revelations, whether real or imagined, and the elaborate patterns of deception in play. But in the later scenes particularly everyone has to dig deeper than any soap can whether in soliloquy or dialogue, and all the jagged elements of plot and character suddenly fuse together powerfully in a way that had the audience on its feet at the end of press night.

Director Max Harrison rightly uses minimalist means to set the action in motion – just four benches and a table and chairs as needed to suggest various domestic and office interiors, some very stark lighting contrasts, and a selection of props, with all of them moved on and off expeditiously by the cast. With so many short scenes this sort of seamless, slick, flow is essential assisted and reinforced by a resonantly sinister sound design too.

Despite my reservations about the pacing and structure of the play, this is a deserved and successful revival which showcases some impressive performances in a venue of just the right size to maximise the impact of the evening.