Reviews West End & Central Published 2 December 2015

Linda

Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs ⋄ 25th November 2015 - 9th January 2016

The protagonist of her own life.

Stewart Pringle
Photo: Alistair Muir

Photo: Alistair Muir

On a set that rises like a wave of porcelain over a black lake, Penelope Skinner’s new play re-frames the fall of a great ruler as the disintegration of a happy and successful woman. Linda is the Lear of the boardroom, beneficent ruler of the domestic sphere and living proof that even in the shadow of the patriarchy, a woman can still have it all. Of course she can’t, and doesn’t, as Skinner traces her disintegration and the breakdown of her family with broad strokes and blunt swipes, occasionally grasping the elemental, often revealing painful truths, but it also speaks with a directness that borders on the clumsy.

Linda works for the Swan Beauty Corporation. She made her name with an advertising campaign Skinner has loosely based on the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ trip, and though one daughter has sulkily confined herself to a skunk onsie and refuses to leave the house, her family life seems a picture of middle-class serenity. Linda’s mistake is not a sudden splitting of the kingdom, but allowing so much of herself to be taken and used, taken for granted or taken for profit and ground away.

It’s a monster of a part, a brilliant part, easily the equal of Becky in The Village Bike, and Noma Dumezweni utterly owns it. Any fear that Kim Cattrall’s sudden departure from the role would wound the play is instantly obliterated by Dumezweni’s powerful, striding but nuanced portrayal. Strong and credible in presentations, with an easy confidence developed in a complacent faith in her place in the world and ability to maintain it, Dumezweni gives us a woman who doesn’t realise the glass ceiling is there until she’s been crushed up against it like an insect on a microscope slide.

Skinner presents her female Lear as besieged on all fronts. There is no Goneril or Regan, there are just vain and powerful men at her sides, and young and ambitious women scrambling upwards towards her. Amy Beth Hayes is perfectly hideous as the new blood Amy, the mastermind of the ‘Hi Beauty’ campaign that promises to undo all of Linda’s professional achievements, while Merriel Plummer is the red-headed singer who husband Neil shacks up with in his Ferrari moment.

The greatest strength of Skinner’s play is that Linda’s fatal flaw is no flaw at all. Her version of Lear’s vanity and hubris is the misguided expectation that she will be treated fairly, intelligently and with respect. Her daughter Alice has learned the hard way that a world of vindictive, cruel men can destroy your hopes for the future with the flick of a cursor, after explicit images are shared amongst her school-friends, but just as Linda fails to see the self-inflicted cuts Alice’s onesie hides, she also fails to see the jaws of the trap that she has become hopelessly caught in, she fails to see that she is already wounded, and bleeding.

Its weakness, apart from an excessive length that feels conceptually under-resourced, is that the themes and mechanics of the play are so blatant, so transparent and over-used, that Linda’s interior world feels more like a construction than a living thing. Skinner’s characters are still deeper and more complex than mere archetypes, but from Linda’s job in beauty products, her younger daughter’s auditions for the school’s Shakespeare, to the hippy pre-occupations of hot office intern Luke, it’s overburdened with cliché and convention. Its symbolism is so blatant it’s almost hectoring, and where Skinner’s earlier works often contained similar motifs (think the bulging pipe bursting into a desperate orgasmic release in The Village Bike) here they feel almost overwhelming.

Michael Longhurst’s production is very fine, making superb use of Es Devlin’s dazzling set, an immaculate construction of chrome, glass and stark white panels. Filled with boxes, stairways, bannisters and windows, it’s like a puzzle box constructed from the base elements of upper-middle class urban domesticity. With a few passages (understandably) still on book, Dumezweni’s performance can only grow in confidence and brilliance, and that alone makes Linda an essential watch. It also feels only right that Vicky Featherstone should close out another year in the Jerwood Downstairs with a play that gives space and a voice to an older woman in extremis. In many ways, Linda feels like an archetypal Dominic Cooke play. The marital and professional strife of the incredibly wealthy. But it’s only when we see Dumezweni racked and suffering at the very centre of the stage, the protagonist of her own life and her own play, that you realise how terribly, tragically rare a thing that is.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Linda Show Info


Directed by Michael Longhurst

Written by Penelope Skinner

Cast includes Noma Dumezweni, Imogen Byron, Karla Crome, Jaz Deol, Amy Beth Hayes, Merriel Plummer, Ian Redford, Dominic Mafham

Link http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/

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