Chalet Lines, Madani Younis’ first production as Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, explodes the constricting nature of family ties. Lee Mattinson’s fraught comedy, with its feminist undertones, emphasis on emotional and sexual disappointments, and exploration of societal pressures, appears influenced by writers like Caryl Churchill and Charlotte Keatley. Mattinson is a Newcastle-based playwright (his monologue, Donna Disco, was recently seen on the Live Theatre stage) and Younis now introduces him to a London audience.
It’s Nana Barbara’s seventieth birthday and Loretta, her caustic eldest child, and her two granddaughters, Abigail and Jolene, have returned to the site of her wedding, Butlins in Skegness, to celebrate the occasion. Perhaps not unexpectedly the atmosphere soon begins to deflate quicker than Nana’s birthday balloons as it becomes clear Loretta’s estranged sister Paula isn’t going to be coming and the one liners become ever more lacerating. Mattinson’s play hops back and forth in time, between birthday, hen do and wedding day, unravelling each key moment of betrayal that has brought us to this point before returning us to a present where the emotional cracks are more like crevices.
Mattinson’s humour is brash yet sharp, if also a little obvious in places and it is not until everyone’s wounds are fully laid bare that Chalet Lines really starts to take shape. The play becomes darker in tone and there are some moments of heartbreaking cruelty from Loretta, especially towards her own eldest daughter, Abigail. Loretta may be a little over-the-top at times but she is a wretchedly vivid portrait of a woman trapped by her own fears.
The cast have a strong rapport but it’s Laura Elphinstone who steals the show. As Abigail, she is all elbows and ears, a twisted duckling who, emotionally at least, transforms into a swan. Her transition from a fragile thing to someone of confidence and composure is subtle and satisfying. Monica Dolan also gives a powerful performance as Loretta though something about her always seems a little removed.
There are times when Leslie Travers’ fractured and heavily tilted set threatens to overshadow these performances, strong as they are. In their high heels the cast seem slightly concerned about falling over bits of it. Brightly coloured light bulbs pepper the space like an arcade and puncture every scene transition. It’s pretty, but adds little to the story being told on stage.
Although Younis has teased tender performances from his cast, only Dolan and Elphinstone seem fully able to out-shine this bright, gaudy backdrop. The timing is sometimes a little off and, as a result, the delicately-woven family interplay can feel forced and unnatural. Younis has chosen a rich and intriguing play with which to make his mark, I just hope next time he trusts his material a little bit more.