Mike Leigh is as well known for his hugely successful film career as he is for his unique devised process that sees actors thrown into improvisation and intense character studies in order to create ultra realistic stories that seem spontaneous and unrehearsed.
So when the Hampstead theatre announced it would be reviving Leigh’s 1979 drama Ecstasy, it was somewhat of a coup; the writer and director would recreate the production over 30 years later with a ready made script and a near identical set. But at last night’s opening performance, the raw emotion and strikingly real characters in Leigh’s bleak piece felt just as real as the person sitting next to you.
This is as much a credit to Ecstasy’s cast as it is to Leigh’s legendary writing style. Siân Brooke stars as Jean, a perpetually lonely woman living in a bedsit in Kilburn. A stone’s throw away from the comfortable seats of the Hampstead theatre, Ecstasy reveals a very different world that, give or take a few cultural references and, hopefully, less than acceptable attitudes to race, is as relevant today as it was then.
In a short first act we see Jean in the most unromantic of post-coital conversations. Her small flat seems smaller yet in the presence of Roy (Daniel Coonan), whose violent demeanour and bullying, poisonous words make you long for an ending that sees the heartbreakingly vulnerable Jean have her salvation. After a surprise arrival from Roy’s furious wife, Jean’s friend Dawn (Sinead Matthews) takes her out on the town to cheer her up.
The second act is where Leigh’s naturalistic style allows the audience the greatest insight into the characters’ lives. Unafraid of long pauses and slow paced conversations that take the mundane to a very realistic extreme, Leigh allows Jean’s repressed depression to build slowly to an explosive climax that is excruciating to watch.
But this is Mike Leigh we are dealing with here, so while the intensity of human emotions are made painfully clear, humour, wit and observation so detailed it makes you flinch with familiarity also feature heavily. Dawn is a pocket sized ball of energy whose delightfully argumentative relationship with her beer swilling husband (Allen Leech) is hugely endearing. Sporting two drinks at any one time – lager needs a vodka chaser naturally – Matthews’s gradual descent into stumbling drunk over the hour and a half of the second act is a genius performance.
It may be 32 years since Ecstasy premiered but this production makes it acutely clear that human emotions rarely change with the times. Solitude in a city the size of London is still unbearable, relationships hard and Friday nights still dangerously boozy.