Brian Friel’s Aristocrats should be called ‘Posh People Move House’

1 September 2018

9:00 AM

1 September 2018

9:00 AM

Non-stop chatterbox and mystifyingly revered fabricator of sub-Chekovian paddywhackery, Brian Friel has received another production at the Donmar. His play Aristocrats cadges shamelessly from Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. The setting is a crumbling mansion in Donegal occupied by four adult members of the O’Donnell clan (three girls, one boy), who idle around the place waiting for Dad to clock out so they can get their mitts on the bricks.

Lindsey Turner’s production is curiously stripped of ornament. The characters are assembled on a lime-green patio, suggestive of mown grass, which is surmounted by a white frame with the dimensions of the goalposts at Wembley. To represent the mansion and its contents, two props are used: a titchy Edwardian telephone and a little doll’s house containing matchstick chairs and tables which the characters extract and discuss whenever their forebears’ belongings are mentioned in the script. The whole thing feels like a cheap studio version of a show that will be properly mounted once the money arrives. The play’s timescale is also maddeningly vague. From the dialogue I guessed that we were somewhere within a 15-year period between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. But the clues arrived at random. The O’Donnell brother, aged mid-30s, mentioned that he knew Yeats (who died in 1939), and this detail supplied the earlier boundary. Another character mentioned the Greater London Council (dissolved 1986), which set the later limit. I glanced at the programme notes by Professor Terence Dooley, a specialist in ‘Historic Irish Houses and Estates’, but these offered no reliable data because the dimwit professor referred to ‘the Georgian era, 1730-1840’. The four Georges reigned between 1714 and 1830. Inept chronology is only the start of the mystery.

I found it impossible to tell which O’Donnell sister was married to which of the many Irish geezers bustling in and out. One sister, Alice, has been hit in the face by her chap but she hasn’t troubled to conceal the bruise with blusher. Another sister, Claire, lurks in the wings playing Chopin nocturnes which are relayed to the patio via a loud-speaker nailed to the Wembley goalposts. The same loudspeaker is used by Dad, a bedridden crosspatch, to yell instructions at his yawning children. To unpick all these details, and to feed relevant information to the audience, the play really needs a visiting historian whose questions will unobtrusively supply the necessary data. And guess what? The play does indeed have a historian from Chicago (Paul Higgins, whose accent sounds American some of the time), but the character’s curiosity focuses on the O’Donnells’ past and not on their indecipherable present.

A final mystery concerns the back wall of the Donmar which has been daubed with a lurid amalgam of famous landscapes covered by an opaque silicon membrane. During the play, a mute tramp laboriously unpeels this plastic skin to reveal the kitsch horror behind. What was that about? The long first act, crammed with family chit-chat and historical trivialities, ends with the demented Dad stumbling across the stage and collapsing in a heap of cardiothoracic symptoms. His funeral takes up much of Act Two which culminates in the unsurprising news that the skint O’Donnells must flee their collapsing fortress and find alternative accommodation. Had the play been called ‘Posh People Move House’, and had those words comprised the entire script, I feel that much of my time would have been saved and I would not have felt any less well entertained.

The writer Gerard Alessandrini is a one-man industry whose musical spoof, Forbidden Broadway, has been running for years. He adores Hamilton, which re-energised a Broadway culture that had become over-reliant on classic revivals and juke-box shows. Spamilton is a love-song to Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and his visionary creative talent. It enthusiastically parodies the show’s rap-idiom, its unforgettable rhythms and its flouncier dance routines. The soft-ball cattiness is nicely judged and the show broadens its scope to have a go at old favourites like Annie and newer shows like The Book of Mormon. I particularly enjoyed a spoof of Sondheim’s endless and artless concatenations of syllables which generous reviewers sometimes identify as ‘lyrics’. Celebrity singers also make the target list. Elaine Page and Liza Minnelli are incisively skewered by the brilliant Sophie-Louise Dann.

The director knows that mimicry, like cyanide, works best in small doses and once the medicine has been delivered the actor is withdrawn. The show’s star, Julie Yammanee, is an amazingly versatile talent who sings, dances and performs a wicked take-off of Barbra Streisand. Choreographer Gerry McIntyre contributes comic dance routines that are as funny as physical theatre can get. One warning note. Hamilton-dodgers shouldn’t imagine that this is a cheap way to mug up on the original. Many of the gags are intelligible only to pilgrims who have visited and drunk deep at the source material.

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