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A CurtainUp London Review
Other Desert Cities
by Tim Newns
Baitz presents us with a wounded family that is still in recovery from the death of the oldest sibling. It is Christmas Eve and our window into their lives begins after what you can only imagine was a very competitive tennis match. As the drinks are poured and the familiar Christmas disagreements come to light, Brooke, the liberal fighting daughter from a Republican childhood drops an unsalvageable bombshell on the family. With the news that she is writing a tell all memoir of her dysfunctional life, rifts that had been kept together with loose tape are blown apart and we become witness to the painful and certain breakdown of the Wyeth family unit.
This analysis of a dysfunctional family is recognizable in its depiction of the therapy and drug reliant Californian stereotype clouded and hidden by the sunshine of the West Coast. Yet Baitz's writing is compelling and as equally addictive as the booze, pot and anti-depressants that seem to fuel the characters' lives. At times hysterically funny, at others deeply moving and familial, this is an incredibly well written play treated with appropriate and intuitive direction by Lindsay Posner. The piece works well with the 'in-the-round' design as it highlights the fly on the wall aspect. Throughout, we very much feel like the awkward guest at a family party, red faced and desperate to escape when an argument has erupted between the host and hostess - forced to watch the proceedings but with no way of interceding.
Sinead Cusack plays the overbearing and powerful matriarch Polly with expert derision. Her character has that unnerving ability to crush an aspiration with only the fewest of words and Cusack is a marvel to watch from beginning to end. At first we think of the father, Lyman Wyeth to be the rather stoic and unflappable rock of the family but as the edges fall away even he can't cope with the revelations and the secrets. Peter Egan gives Lyman the required foundation and depth such a character needs and produces a mesmerising and visceral performance.
The most pleasing aspect of the production without a doubt is the West End debut of Martha Plimpton as Brooke. A triumph of characterisation Plimpton forever contradicts our thoughts from sympathy to disagreement and even at the end you aren't quite sure which side of the family you stand with. This is credit to a very intelligent and understanding actor and one can only hope Plimpton will continue to play on British stages for some time.
I find it rare to leave theatres such as the Old Vic and be at least satisfied with every aspect of the production but this tour de force of intensity and family grit has all the right ingredients. The design is accurate and successful in transporting us to a wealthy and sun filled Palm Springs, full of country clubs and shopping malls. Robert Innes Hopkins's eloquent set is full of decadent creams played upon by the simple yet alluring costumes. Every element is almost understated subsequently allowing the core of the story to be bare, exposed and dissected for all to see clearly.
Other Desert Citiesis a hilarious, cheeky and resonant piece of drama made all the more enjoyable by superb performances. Its transition from comedy to agonising emotion is exhausting but very well crafted and it is hard to not be entirely engrossed throughout. This is a must see, not only for the London theatre loyalists as it is a delight to see an iconic theatre in an entirely new formation, but also for anyone interested in the allure of the privileged Californian lifestyle and the effects it has on family life.
To read Curtainup's review of the play both off and on Broadway go here .
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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