Lysette Anthony’s gripping performance cannot save Inge’s unknown play from descending into a soap opera; Christmas Special style.
Let’s face it, there’s a reason this family drama hasn’t had a UK debut in the 50 years since its publication. Several reasons in fact: the play squeezes incest, alcoholism, redundancy, juvenile delinquency, domestic violence, murder, and more, into under two hours.
Inge himself wrote a defence of Natural Affection, entitled ‘Why So Violent?’, after critics slammed it for its brutal content. In it he justifies the play by saying ‘It’s what I felt like writing’, which says it all, really.
Set in a 1960s living room complete with flock wallpaper and electric bar-heater, the sharpscript cleverly explores gender issues in that era. The plot follows Sue (Anthony), whose delinquent son (Cardona) comes to visit for a little longer than planned. Sue’s boyfriend (Knightley) is jealous of her success in business. Self-conscious of his own unemployment, he lashes out at her son. The tension between Anthony and Knightley is electric as they struggle with their wage gap, age gap and responsibilities. Anthony is compelling, fierce yet fragile.
Neighbours come in and make things worse, both in terms of the story and the standard of the performance (over-acting and bizarre accents abound). Tensions escalate; cue a couple of showdowns and a blood bath. Lop off the last 20 minutes of the play and it’s pretty good.
It is the macabre plot then, rather than the witty script, which lets the production down. That, and Cardona, who has bitten off more than he can chew as the disturbed young son. I’m not sure whether his version of the rock and roll twist is meant to be funny or disturbing.
I could watch the leads go through their dialogue all day, but this dark critique of 1960s Chicago takes on too many issues at once. No wonder it has remained obscure for so long.