The week in theatre: The House of Shades; My Fair Lady; The Breach

Intensity is too pale a word for Anne-Marie Duff. It implies something more deliberate than her full-on flaring, and something more solemn than the caustic crackle of her voice. In The House of Shades, Duff snakes into a turquoise cocktail dress to sing I’m Always Chasing Rainbows (and made me long to hear her as Little Voice), slinks into impressions of Bette Davis, snarls – “mardy mustard” as she says of someone else – into disappointment. She does and says monstrous things; she is always magnetic. From time to time she clicks her fingers in the air as if to summon up the next phase of her life.

Duff, playing a Nottinghamshire woman who was not allowed to take up her grammar school place, and is now straining at the leash in her marriage, focuses the different ages not only of woman but of Britain since 1965. Beth Steel’s play begins with the laying-out of a corpse, which is compared to the lifeless shell of a defunct factory. A few years ago in Wonderland, Steel examined the impact of the miners’ strike. Now she evokes the neglect of large swathes of the country in which manufacturing used to happen, and the consequent swerves in political allegiance. This is in part an attempt (the opening of the play was postponed by the pandemic) to show the crumbling of the “red wall”. Here is the decline of trade unions, the rise of Thatcherism, the suffocation of women’s interests by the traditional left; here is Brexit and abortion. Here also are many undiluted gobbets of political information – “the whole postwar manifesto is in ruins” – handed over heavily at the kitchen table.

As Eliza, Amara Okereke moves like a girl used to dodging blows and elbowing her own way through the world

This is a frustrating evening, bristling with ideas that are too often stated, too seldom embodied. Not through lack of acting talent. Stuart McQuarrie is truly touching as the placid, committed husband. Kelly Gough, another ferocious, left-behind woman, is singularly impressive: utterly forthright, often bleak. She is Denise Gough’s sister and is enough to make you believe in a frankness gene: utterly concentrated, clearly truthful, she cuts through flab with every word. Blanche McIntyre’s often gripping production is as ambitious as Steel’s script, swerving between naturalism and the blood-soaked dynastic strife of Greek tragedy. Anna Fleischle’s design captures the mix: part-kitchen sink, part-dreamland, with windows floating in the background, sometimes as snow-covered panes, sometimes as spotlit frames to another life. As do the crooners’ numbers that weave in and out of the action. Their use brings to mind Chris Bush’s 2019 musical evocation of Sheffield’s utopian hopes, Standing at the Sky’s Edge. So often a song wires you in deeper than a tirade.

As in My Fair Lady, which has plenty that is still true to say – and sing – about the pitiful way English society arranges itself. Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 musical, based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, springs from Shaw’s observation about accents: “It is impossible for any Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Its lyrics are spiked with feminism – “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” drawls the complacent professor who sets out to win a bet by teaching a “guttersnipe” to speak proper; its glorious score proves that a flower girl is as rich in expression as any duchess – and that love can move even a dope to eloquence. The show should send audiences out dancing and questioning through the night. Bartlett Sher’s timid production, first seen in New York four years ago, will make them merely smile and shuffle.

Not that there is any shortage of singing and acting talent, with some sharp touches in the main roles, and an acid twist at the end. As Eliza, Amara Okereke has not only a commanding voice and convincing cockney vowels: she moves like a girl used to dodging blows and elbowing her own way through the world; she looks forceful enough to hurl at the bullying Higgins not just his slippers but his phonograph and entire phonetic library. Harry Haden-Paton, a younger than usual Higgins, plays the prof with a deliciously easy complacency (Shaw and the show are very good about the way entitlement entails contempt) and an eventual persuasive collapse. Malcolm Sinclair is an outstanding Colonel Pickering, the Watson to Higgins’s Holmes: spick and span and frightfully civil, with an ambiguous simper when there is a question of buying women’s frocks. Vanessa Redgrave puts in a celebrity appearance, lofty in lilac, as Mrs Higgins.

Yet too much of the action is flaccid. The big Coliseum stage is often strangely vacant and swallows up some of the liveliest numbers: the rhetorical roll of Stephen K Amos’s Doolittle is hard to make out. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography – oh dear, a dance for brooms and jigging bowlers – is starchy and Micheal Yeargan’s sets are staid. In a more stringent production a ballroom drenched in mauve light and covered in curly-wurly cast-iron patterns of peacocks might be considered an acerbic nod to Eliza’s life as a caged bird; here it looks more like Disney sweetness.

Urgency hovers over The Breach but never quite lands. Naomi Wallace’s play, set in her native Kentucky, shuttles between two time schemes, two casts, a tight story and one of wider application. In 1977 a group of teenagers shuffle around each other, shaping up for sex and seeking to bond by increasingly wild acts of self-sabotage. Their families have been differently damaged by poverty, the Vietnam war, pharma power. In scenes set 14 years later the consequences of that time, in particular of one grim encounter, are unravelled.

Wallace is a gifted phrase-maker – a loved rodent pet sits on its tumours as if “on a throne” – and the play has flashes of peculiarity so unexpected that they seem authentic: a brother and sister create a secret game about their father’s fall to his death, tumbling around as they imagine his final words. Yet the action is over-calculated, and Sarah Frankcom’s elegant production does not push it through. Naomi Dawson’s design features a mildly disconcerting sloping stage; Rick Fisher’s lighting holds the characters in a bubble – cool and sealed off, as they like to think of themselves. Like pieces in a board game.

Star ratings (out of five)
The House of Shades
My Fair Lady ★★★
The Breach ★★★