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The Late Middle Classes

Published 2 June 2010

With the Second World War over and women back to making house, playing tennis and looking after their children and husbands once more, boredom sets in and the days of fighting and rationing begin to look more than a little bit rosy.

Simon Gray explores this unsettling period in his melancholy comedy The Late Middle Classes. With wife Celia bored to distraction and husband Charles working all hours as a pathologist, their young son Holly is stuck between two forms of oppressive, overbearing love. Using music as an escape, his controversial salvation comes in the form of piano teacher Mr Brownlow whose obsession with his talent becomes another form of oppression, welcome or not.

Set on an unnamed island off the coast of England, the claustrophobia of living in a small community is painfully obvious. Celia crosses herself with desire whenever London is mentioned and affairs of the heart are easily confused when the community’s uneventful lives are placed in such close proximity.

It is these secret goings-on that are at the centre of Gray’s slow-paced piece, which puts 1950s families under the microscope. No longer needed to drive ambulances or live independently, Celia has no purpose in life other than to chain-smoke cigarettes, please her husband and smother her son with girlish flirtation. Played by the wonderfully vivid Helen McCrory, the sassy Celia is only ever one worried glance away from her insecurities. She plays dead to seek attention and perk up her otherwise dull life, and is unable to communicate what she is really feeling in a society where stiff upper lips and clipped jolly-hockey-sticks accents still rule.

It is the new generation that truly takes centre stage in this production, however. Holly finds release in his relationship with Austrian Mr Brownlow and his eccentric, housebound mother Ellie, who lack awareness of small-town England’s repressed politeness and inability to discuss things. It is a relationship that society cannot accept, and accusations soon begin to fly.

Mike Britton’s simple design revolves around a Bernstein piano and a classically English three piece suite, set against a wallpapered backdrop where even the mirrors and photographs are covered with chintzy flowers. You cannot help but see this as a metaphor for the characters’ ability to successfully cover even their most violent and distressing emotions.

Finding himself in the middle of all these screwed up children posing as adults, Laurence Belcher’s portrayal of Holly is undeniably genius. A fully grown actor in a child’s body, Belcher proves himself one to watch by playing a role which requires the emotional intelligence and cultural awareness of someone far beyond his tender years. 



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