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A CurtainUp London London Review
Mrs Klein

The envelope looks as if it is about to burst with hostile matter.— Melanie Klein
Mrs Klein
Clare Higgins as Melanie Klein
(Photo: John Haynes)
Revived at The Almeida is Nicholas Wright's play about the relationship between the most famous child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (Clare Higgins) and her daughter Melitta Schmideberg (Zoê Waites). The play is set in London in 1934 as Mrs Klein has just heard about the death of her elder son Hans in a climbing accident on the Continent.

Wright's play is an erudite combination of a story of family rivalry with plenty of references to the study of psychoanalysis which forms the professional background of all three of the play's women characters. Such is the overriding importance of the world of the psychoanalyst in this play that we hear that Mrs Klein has had a taxi ride where the taxi driver has consulted her on his sexual problems with his new wife.

The opening act sees a very nervous Jewish arrival from Germany, Paula (Nicola Walker), a junior analyst who is trying to make ends meet with a practice in a deprived area of Bethnal Green, the only place the British Psychoanalytic Society will allow her to see patients. Melanie Klein will employ the deferential Paula to type and proof read a German edition of her latest book while she goes to her son's funeral. Mrs Klein is talking about her professional rivalry with Edward Glover and Dr Schmideberg. It is only later that we realise that the hated Dr Schmideberg is Klein's own married daughter Melitta.

While Klein is away, Melitta storms into the house and interrupts Paula, anxious to find the key to the cocktail cabinet. Hoping that her mother is away, Melitta has come to retrieve a letter she had written to her mother and which she has thought better of. Melitta confides in Paula but Mrs Klein arrives home unexpectedly and there is a sudden shift of attention. Mrs Klein starts being unpleasant to Paula and is all over her daughter like a rash. Eventually, the crux of the mother-daughter is brought out in the open and we get a picture of a mother who has tightly controlled her children. When Melitta confronts her mother with her plans for breaking free of this control, sparks fly. The confrontation also has its effect on Paula 's relationship with Mrs. Klein.

Clare Higgins is a remarkable actress, here as the founder of child psychoanalysis who may be brilliant in her chosen profession but who cannot fathom her own daughter. Zoê Waites is stubborn and determined as Melitta and pale-eyed Nicola Walker reveals an ability to ingratiate herself with both women.

I loved the way these women analysts talk to each other never missing an interpretative trick, an allusion to sex or excreta or the infant projecting his anger onto the breast which is the opportunity for the audience to laugh. Even Melitta's request to buy her mother out of the Sunbeam car that was her dead father's, Mrs Klein mentions, is seen as a desire for her father's penis extension. I can remember a time in the 1960s and 70s when many rich people needed to see their analyst four times a week and psychoanalysis was the height of fashionable coping. My guess is that a large percentage of the Almeida audience today for Mrs Klein are in the psychiatric/counselling professions and that some will be admirers of Klein's work. Let's hope Mrs Klein managed to see her daughter with a clinical detachment rather than just as a mother who loves.

Thea Sharrock's tense production is excellent at bringing out the volatility of the cross-over professional-personal relationships. Tim Hatley's elegant study has painted red walls and ceiling, Persian rugs and red velvet curtains like a cosy womb.
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Mrs Klein
Written by Nicholas Wright
Directed by Thea Sharrock

Starring: Clare Higgins, Nicola Walker, Zoè Waites
Design: Tim Hatley
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Running time: Two and a half hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 5th December 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 30th October 2009 performance at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London N1 (Tube: The Angel, Islington)

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