The Hampstead Theatre stages this long awaited revival of the celebrated play by Mike Leigh, directed by the author himself, thus bringing the show back to the same place it premiered in 1979. A strong and affecting production, the play has earned a West End transfer to the Duchess Theatre in mid-April.
The story centres on Jean, a young, working-class petrol station attendant who lives in a cramped bedsit in Kilburn, whose state of mind is threatened by solitude, a string of destructive lovers, alcoholism, and a trove of dark secrets. We join her as she spends an evening partying with her loud-mouthed best friend Dawn, and Mick, her slothful drunkard of a husband. As she is reunited with old friend Len, can Jean keep her crumbing life together and put on a brave face in front of the company she keeps?
Leigh’s observation of life and love is, as always, incredibly accurate. Though the main theme of the play is quite dark and at times extreme, it is punctuated with an uncanny sense of earthy humour that is both hilarious and devastating. Like many of Leigh’s works, Ecstasy moves at a slow pace, yet manages to keep the audience engaged through acute observations, underpinned by a strong, but always ambiguous, ulterior narrative. Though it seems little happens over a long period of time, there is a gradual build-up of anticipation towards an implied end resolution. This is strangely engrossing, and when it does all come together it is incredibly powerful and deeply affecting.
Leigh directs an outstanding cast and marries his talent with theirs to create some truly awe-inspiring performances. He manages to bring out every smallest detail and mannerism of his complex characters, all played adroitly by an extraordinarily agile cast. Even if you have trouble making out the script through some of the characters’ accents (ranging from a thick Brummie to a broad Irish), they still manage to communicate what’s happening perfectly through their strong performances. In particular, Daniel Coonan sparkles as Roy, Jean’s bullying and brutish lover. Coonan brings a commanding and intimidating presence to the stage; he is truly terrifying during the climax to Act I, and deserves praise for a bravura performance.
The overall effect of this production is that you feel like you’ve spent two and a half hours with very real people, through their many highs and lows. Despite its snail’s pace, the cast’s staggering performances and Leigh’s genius script and direction carry the audience through. Ecstasy is, indeed, an ecstatically well-judged, gloomy and powerful play, and a superb choice for a West End transfer.
Ecstasy plays at the Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 3EU, until 9 April 2011. Tickets cost £22 (concessions available). To book call 020 7722 9301 or visit www.hampsteadtheatre.com. The show transfers to the Duchess Theatre, 3-5 Catherine Street, London WC2B 5LA, from 12 April, where tickets will cost £29 (£22 Monday to Wednesday and Thursday matinees); booking is open through London Theatre Direct.