“Fancy a pork pie?”
The Hampstead Downstairs has attracted an interesting range of creative talents since opening and with perhaps fortuitous timing, welcomes Nick Payne’s newest play Lay Down Your Cross. Payne is coming off the huge sellout success of Constellations upstairs at the Royal Court, but this is a much different piece of work – more akin to Wanderlust, my other experience with him as a playwright. We’re in Tony’s poky new flat in Luton where he is waiting for the arrival of his daughter Dawn, who has emigrated to Australia, as it is the funeral of his soldier son Adam. As we also meet his scatty ex-wife Grace, who’s all too keen on a box of wine or two, and Adam’s girlfriend Raph who is worrying about delivering the eulogy, Dawn gets to find out some uncomfortable truths about home, and her brother’s death.
Payne excavates this troubled family dynamic extremely well: the emotional distance between them all, Tony’s struggle to shake his ex-wife’s dependence, his bluff demeanour having to hide his disappointment at the choices that his children have made, his lashing out when things get too much, all is excellently portrayed in Andy De La Tour’s persuasive performance. His quiet heartbreak is set well against the blinkered disintegration of Grace, Susan Wooldridge in fine form, but the play suffers a little with the shift into the blame game which comes with Dawn’s relentless pursuit of the truth. Lucy Phelps does well at signifying the righteous liberal anger but Payne absolves her, too easily for my liking, from the familial responsibility from which she has divorced herself and I wanted more resolution in this father/daughter relationship.
Director Clare Lizzimore has gone for a hyper-real feel, especially when it comes to the food: so every time Tony offers a pork pie, he brings out pork pies on a plate which more often than not get eaten; the leftover food from the wake is cling-filmed up and nibbled away at as it should be; and we’re left in doubt as to how real the Indian takeaway is… Combined with some real hoovering (although left frustratingly incomplete) and proper projecting of a dvd, the detailing of the play is highly naturalistic in Will Fricker’s set. And this is matched by a set of four quietly powerful performances, chief amongst whom is Angela Terence’s Raph, the too-young girlfriend (and substitute daughter) who is beautifully funny (without realising it) and incredibly moving in a scene of sigh-inducing revelation.
But whilst I did enjoy the play for the most part, looking back at it now I realise that there were a few moments where I didn’t quite get it at the time. This is quite possibly due to it having been a long week and so my concentration levels might not have been exactly what they could have been but I wonder too if there was perhaps a certain lack of clarity from the direction or the playwriting or both. I’d totally forgotten Tony and Grace were a divorced couple after about 20 minutes, and I think I misunderstood Dawn’s reaction to finding out the true circumstances about her brother’s death (she’d been lied to by her father) though I still found her to be a thoroughly objectionably selfish character.
Looking at the fairly sparse crowd though (whilst entertained by the presence of Lady Antonia Fraser-Pinter) one has to wonder if the Hampstead Theatre’s approach to the Downstairs programming is proving entirely successful. The original raison d’être for the space spoke of being somewhere where theatre-making could be experimental and feel developmental free from critical gaze, but in reality we’ve ended up with a season that feels mostly rather traditional and quite akin to the Royal Court Upstairs – not that that is a bad thing at all – but the accompanying lack of promotional push from denying press reviews does mean that these plays can feel a little neglected and deserving of better audiences. Still, Lay Down Your Cross represents great value for money in seeing new writing from an interesting playwright and a high quality cast.