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A CurtainUp London Review

The family is . . . "tough, resilient, tenacious; and with one enormous talent for, no, a greed for, survival." — Eamon
Casimir (David Dawson) and Claire (Aisling Loftus) (Photo: Johan Persson)
After their success with Brian Friel's Faith Healer two years ago in 2016 go here, director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin return to the Donmar Warehouse for a production of Friel's Aristocrats about the decay of an Irish land owning family and their home Ballybeg Manor.

Friel's plays are much admired for their subtle but deep characterisations and sense of place. The aristocrats of the title are an Irish catholic family in decline, once wealthy and important in the neighbourhood, but now economically less than crucial to the people of the local village.

Judge O'Donnell (James Laurenson), The bed-ridden family patriarch, is only heard through a baby monitor speaker in the living room, rigged up to help his daughter housekeeper and carer Judith (Eileen Walsh) who is expected to be at least two places at once. It is David Dawson as Casimir, the only son among four daughters who transfixes us every moment that he is onstage. Casimir is a delicate man, a sensitive soul with not a malicious bone in his body but who is living a lie. He talks about living in Germany with his wife Helga and three sons, Herbert, Hans and Heinrich, all of whom no-one from Ballybeg has ever met.

The family are gathered for the imminent wedding of depressive Claire (Aisling Loftus), the pianist of the family who showed early promise but for whom the professional musician career never materialised. As I describe the members of this family, the Checkovian disappointment comes to the fore, the compromises, the unrealised dreams and the denial that some of them live in about what is reality.

Some of the narrative gaps are filled by visiting academic Tom Hoffnung (Paul Higgins) who is gathering information for a tome about the decline of Irish Catholic land owning families. He is told about the famous artists, writers and composers who have visited Ballybeg. Hoffnung might be a tad gullible about Casimir's romantic tales.

Friel is particularly good at creating haunting characters who stay in your memory long after the drama has closed. There is Alice (Elaine Cassidy) who lives in London with her husband Eamon (Emmet Kirwan), the son of a former maid at the "big house'. Alice has a fairly obvious drink problem and Cassidy's performance exudes a life wasted by self administered pain relief. Judith's maternal instinct has had to settle for care of their father and as much of the house and estate as she can manage. Claire's marriage is not to some handsome youth but to a middle aged greengrocer. The sister we never see is Anna, a nun in Zambia.

Where Lyndsey Turner's production fell down for me was in Es Devlin's creation of Ballybeg Manor as a dolls house where the rooms light up, a miniature representation of the real building which looks twee rather than crumbling. The cast, when not in the action, sit on a long shelf at the rear, painted pale green to match the rear wall. Uncle George (Ciaran McIntyre) who doesn't have much else to do except to pose the problem as to what is to become of him when the manor is sold, is engaged in peeling swathes of green paint from the wall. This slowly reveals a mural of a Victorian family enjoying a picnic on a country estate with the same Georgian house in the background. I longed to join in with the satisfying act of peeling off the "skin".

Friel's play needs a sense of place, a context, the oppressive atmosphere of a house with musty furnishings and seventeen buckets to catch the rainwater. Ballybeg is too expensive to maintain and draining both on those who used to live there and those left behind, rather than as portrayed in the initial minimalism and abstraction of this set. There is also a disappearing Ireland of rare Catholic landowners in decline.

David Dawson is a fine actor and I am wondering why we haven't seen him as Hamlet as he has the fragility and brittleness of someone damaged by circumstance. The performances are without fault but somehow the missing elements of the set interfere rather than allowing them to shine.

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Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Lyndsey Turner
Starring: David Dawson, Elaine Cassidy
With: Paul Higgins, David Ganly, Aisling Loftus, Eileen Walsh, James Laurenson, Emmet Kirwan, Ciaran McIntyre
Set Design: Es Devlin
Costume Design: Moritz Junge
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Lighting Design: Paule Constable
Composer: Alex Baranowski
Movement: Jonathan Watkins
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 3282 3808
Booking to 22nd September 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th August 2018 matinee performance at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX (Tube: Covent Garden)
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