22 October 2011

When Did You Last See My Mother?

When Did You Last See My Mother? is, apparently, Christopher Hampton's first play and recently returned to the West End after forty years.

The West End in this case being the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall. Or, to be more precise, the diminutive Studio 2 there.

This was my third visit to Trafalgar Studios but the first to Studio 2. It is, not surprisingly, much like other small theatres, it has just 100 seats, in its layout with rows of benches around the three sides of the stage but, unlike the others, it has numbered seating.

The usual rule of going for the front row in small theatres was followed and I booked a seat next to one of the aisles on the grounds that would guarantee legroom and might also mean being close to some theatrical exists and entrances. I was wrong.

The aisle was blocked by a chair on the stage which meant that some of the audience had to squeeze between me and the chair to get to their seats and I had to be careful to avoid interfering with one of the actors who spent a lot of time sitting in that chair.

I like being close to the action and this was really close. I was not watching people living in a bedsit, I was with them in the bedsit.

Some care and attention had been spent getting that bedsit right and it was realistically frugal and period. The furniture and furnishing were a joy to behold.

In this bedsit are Ian and Jimmy. Two young men, fresh out of school, desperate for sex and short of money. They are "living together" in the biblical sense but Jimmy also has lots of sex with other boys and girls.

Ian is left with his pain and confusion and it is this that drives the play forward with vigour, humour and pathos.

Ian talks incessantly and honestly. Rather like House, he says what he feels and care not one whit who this offends. There is no malice or snideness in his remarks, he is just saying what he things. He comes across as a nice enough fellow but the frustrations and jealousies cloud his thinking.

Jiimmy, in contrast, is smart, confident and is not worried by money or sex. Life flows around him and he takes what he can along the way. He's shallow and carefree while Ian is deep and in pain. They are also in love, of a sorts, though they never directly admit to that.

There dialogue sparkles and spikes in equal measure. Again one is reminded of House talking to Wilson, and that is a good thing.

Into this emotional pot descends Jimmy's mother for whom the phrase MILF could have been invented. She is mature, assured and smartly dressed. She also feels for Ian. This is, or becomes, more than maternal and they have sex.

Later Ian excuses himself for this by saying that he only did so because she reminded him of Jimmy. She does not understand what he means by this and you have to remember that the play was written well before gay became an accepted and public lifestyle.

But the play is not about the plot. It's about Ian's emotions and the way that he reveals them in his dialogue. And now it has the added attraction of being a glimpse in to the past.

The acting is excellent too. Harry Melling (who was in Harry Potter, apparently) plays Ian and dominates the play simply because that is the way that it is written and he does all that is asked of him in that role. I especially liked his Young Fogey look with Tweed jacket and thick black glasses.

As a result it's a fantastic performance that was genuinely appreciated and warmly received by the audience who were a reassuring mix of ages, genders and races. Theatre needs to attract a wide range of people to survive and it's good to see plays that can do this.

When Did You Last See My Mother? is an enthralling and exhilarating swim in young emotions. Excellent stuff.

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