Any play that begins with a corpse laid out on a table is reaching for metaphor, and you don’t have long to wait in Beth Steel’s decades-spanning drama before it lands. “Not much different to a deserted factory,” remarks the woman cleaning the body. “Or boarded-up street.”
The House of Shades, which attempts to map some of the reasons behind the Tory Red Wall victory in 2019, contains many arguments familiar to those who’ve watched with painful fascination the gradual collapse of Labour as a once formidable protector of the British working class. We’re in the kitchen of a staunchly Labour family in a Nottingham mining town in 1965, where the supposed sexual revolution, as far as its female residents are concerned, still means DIY abortions using knitting needles. Jack, a teenage communist, attacks his father’s unwavering faith in the trade union movement, and his twin sister Agnes bristles at being on a smaller wage than her brother for the same part-time work because she is a woman.
Meanwhile, Anne-Marie Duff’s Constance, the dangerously restless matriarch, who can quote Bette Davis the way men quote football scores, and who spends her last pennies on dresses she’ll never wear outside the house, is bitterly aware she’ll never experience the world she can sense exploding beyond her kitchen sink.
As they march through the decades, Steel frames her scenes with the sort of oppositional political debate that can feel parachuted in. Jack is now a Tory, whose Thatcher-supporting girlfriend calmly tells his striking factory-worker brother-in-law that the endless picket lines demanding better pay are eroding people’s faith in Labour.
Later, Jack furiously attacks the myth of feminine working-class solidarity by arguing that women have historically kept each other tied to the home by shaming each other over the state of their doorsteps. Later still, Agnes’s teenage daughter, on a zero hours contract, gives New Labour a kicking for having opened up manufacturing to foreign labour, meaning that jobs that used to go to the locals now go to the Poles.
Yet if the political point-scoring sometimes feels dutiful, the play is richly theatrical in the way it demonstrates the stranglehold of history on the present moment. Ghosts are everywhere, from Constance’s dead daughter Laura, who died following a botched abortion and who haunts Constance in her bloodstained nightdress, including most powerfully when Constance lies dying in her hospital bed, to the coat of Constance’s dead father who used to beat her with his belt buckle and which still hangs behind the door.
Steel deftly upends our presumptions, too, about what sort of play this is. Having presented us with a fairly conventional state-of-the-nation epic in the first half, she tips into truly shocking territory in the second half in ways that lend the play’s interest in the inherited damage passed on between mothers to daughters the visceral force of Greek tragedy.
This is a highly satisfying, old-fashioned play that serves the audience with a rich mix of the personal and political on which to chew. Director Blanche McIntyre keeps a three hour running time nicely ticking over and beautifully deploys music and song as vectors of impossible dreams. Alongside Duff’s force-of-nature presence, at once toxic and tragic, Kelly Gough is particularly good as Agnes, whose early academic promise is squandered in a series of dead-end jobs.
The final scene, set in 2019, feels like an afterthought, and given that this play has been delayed for a good two years, perhaps it was. Still, with the landmark abortion case Roe v Wade back in the headlines, Steel’s play gains extra currency in showing how, when individuals are stripped of protections, it’s the poorest women who suffer most.
Until June 18. Tickets 020 7359 4404; almeida.co.uk