Theatre review: Ecstasy, Hampstead Theatre, London

Ecstasy by Mike Leigh
Hampstead Theatre and Duchess Theatre
Mike Leigh is best known for his films of everyday London lives from Secrets & Lies to Happy-Go-Lucky, but he started his career in theatre with a series of plays set in north London. One of these was Ecstasy, first performed in 1979 a few months after Margaret Thatcher swept to victory at the end of a decade of industrial unrest. It is a powerful snapshot of working-class lives where people struggle to cope with loneliness and despair. At the same time, as with his films, Leigh manages to make you laugh amid the bleak moments.

It is set in a small claustrophic London bedsit, with a set that looks like it has been sliced out of its building, complete with two of the walls, and dropped in the middle of a much larger stage. Here lives Jean, a young woman who endures her lonely life working in a garage forecourt shop through alcohol and one-night stands. She is played with subtlety and pent-up despair by Siân Brooke who often lets others do the talking but is the (broken) heart of the play. Sinéad Matthews gives a tour de force as her garrulous best friend Dawn, bringing plenty of much-needed comedy to the action which mostly revolves around a drunken get-together after pub closing time. She is well matched with Allen Leech who brings charm and humour as her feckless Irish husband Mick. The play may not offer any easy answers or uplifting resolution, but it is as sharply observed as Leigh’s films, capturing the language and rhythms of lives led in quiet desperation.

Amateur Stage magazine

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