Bleakness reigns supreme in the sea of drab and dreary brown and beige that is Samuel Adamson’s new play Mrs Affleck.
Set in 1955, Claire Skinner’s eponymous lead is the spot of colour in a dull Kent seaside town, her bright blue dress setting her immediately apart from all the washed-out neutrals that surround her. A woman of considerable intelligence, she is caught in limbo, a symptom of the changing times. She is independent, free-thinking and spirited, but expected to stay at home and care for a child she resents while her husband follows an intellectual pursuit he can never fulfill. When the emotions become too much and she finally speaks her mind, the walls of her marriage begin to collapse, with devastating effect.
But it is not just Skinner’s Mrs Affleck who is trapped by circumstances. A second Mrs Affleck – half-sister of the other’s husband – is caught in a relationship almost as morally shocking as wishing your child dead. Caught between these two women, the patriarch of the piece, Angus Wright’s Mr Affleck, seems the feeblest of men, even with his cavernous voice.
Skinner’s performance is at the centre of the play, the sun around which all other characters orbit. It moves from sharp and scathing – as the frustration within her becomes more and more apparent – to exploding with the venom and fury of years of neglect in a family life with only resentment and guilt where love should be.
Naomi Frederick, as sister-in-law Audrey, is the more acceptable face of womankind; more demure, more submissive, but no less haunted by love and life’s decisions.
Adamson’s text, inspired by Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, is rife with relevance to the 50s setting. It is clear – not just in the fluctuating position of women, but in the distrust of a newly arrived black family, the strange arrival of a leather-jacketed teenager and the concern about the world’s future weapons – that this is a time of change, uncertainty and turmoil. The years of the war are looked on as the good old days.
The Cottesloe theatre has been reshuffled in the hands of designer Bunny Christie, so that the stage consumes most of the floor space, with the audience spread around it. Yet much of that area is left fairly sparse, a few benches or tables representing a garden or a beach front café. This being England, anyone drinking at such an establishment is bound to get rained on; the bleak, uncaring, numbing water is symptomatic of a promising life destroyed by love, regret, guilt and grief.