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First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

This summer is a boon time for fans of Irish playwright Brian Friel; at the Comedy theatre Tom Courtenay is currently starring in The Home Place, while last night a revival of Friel’s 1979 piece, Aristocrats, opened at the National’s Lyttelton theatre. Matthew Amer stepped out of the South Bank’s sunshine and into the shade of an aging Catholic ‘Big House’ for the press night…

The safety curtain that greets the Lyttelton audience on entering to the auditorium presents a picture reminiscent of The Secret Garden: a group of children stand amid a glade, with branches partially obscuring them and lush greenness capturing them in a world of natural magic. The scene revealed behind the curtain is less idyllic, as the curtain raises on an old family house which has fallen into a state of disrepair; wallpaper peels from the ancient walls, while outside, the once-loved croquet lawn has to be sought out and marked with napkins.

The youngest generation of the aristocratic family, who has inhabited the building for as long as the villagers of Ballybeg can remember, has returned to the house; back for the wedding of youngest sister, Claire. The family, like the house, is not in the state it once was.

Andrew Scott plays only son Casimir, a man who, if he had been born in Ballybeg rather than the family’s ancestral home, according to his father, would have been the village idiot. Scott plays Casimir with a touch of the overgrown child; all wide eyes, wildly gesticulating hands, uncontrollable exuberance and a fear of his father’s booming voice. He is the source of many a story, about the history of the family house in which every piece of furniture is linked to a novelist, poet, playwright or composer, that blurs the line between fiction and reality. Scott won the 2005 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement or Performance in an Affiliate Theatre for his performance in A Girl In A Car With A Man at the Royal Court, a theatre where he has also performed in Crave, Dublin Carol and Playing The Victim.

Dervla Kirwan, best known for her television roles including Ballykissangel and Goodnight Sweetheart, plays Alice, the sister who married a villager, Eamon (Peter McDonald), and moved to London. Forced to spend her days alone in their damp bed-sit, Alice has turned to alcohol to help her through.

Gina McKee, whose most recent West End performance came in Old Times at the Donmar Warehouse, plays Judith, the oldest of the sisters, who has given over her life to caring for her bed-ridden father. She takes the matriarchal role in a family where the exact details of the mother’s death are extremely vague. Had she received her father’s support earlier in her life, she could be mothering her own child, instead of him.

Youngest daughter Claire (Marcella Plunkett) provides the soundtrack to the play, performing a range of Chopin pieces throughout the performance. So integral is music to the piece that two pianists, Eleanor Alberga and Salomé Van Der Walt, play the piano live each night. Claire, like the other children, has had her dreams and aspirations snatched or crushed, and although she may have had the talent to be a concert pianist, she now plays only for her family.

Tom Cairns, who both directs and designed the set, is provided with acres of room on the Lyttelton stage in which to present the tale of family relationships, missed opportunities, class and politics. While some of the stage houses the ‘Big House’s’ study, complete with storytelling artefacts, much of the stage portrays the house’s gardens, where the family reminisce about old times; Claire and Casimir play imaginary croquet while Eamon and Alice continue drinking away their problems. Though singularly their stories may hold a Chekhovian melancholy, there is still a warmth about the family that raised both smiles and laughter throughout the performance.

Brian Friel is one of Ireland’s most prominent playwrights, and is often compared to Russian literary legend Anton Chekhov, some of whose plays he has translated. Among his canon of works are plays such as Lovers, Afterplay, Translations, for which he was awarded the Ewart-Biggs Peace Prize, and Dancing At Lughnasa which, in 1992, won three Tony Awards.

Friel, in some of his notes reproduced in the program, talks of “incipient decay, an era wilted, people confused and nervous”. The bleakness intimated in these notes is clear in the finished play, but with it much beauty, joy and heart-rending emotion.

Aristocrats plays at the Lyttelton until October 13.


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