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A CurtainUp London London Review

You don't buy nufin’ in C&A - you go in - help yaself! — Dawn
Allen Leech as Mick and Craig Parkinson as Len
(Photo: John Haynes)
First written and performed at the theatre in 1979, Mike Leigh's play Ecstasy, now on at the Hampstead Theatre, is mesmerising and vastly amusing. Leigh's production is well crafted and delicate, full of estimable character work from an exceptional cast.

Ecstasy, revolves around Jean (Siân Broàke), a working class ‘ Brummie’ living in a rather drab flat in Kilburn. Her life is rather sad and seemingly on a destructive path of alcoholism and cigarettes part fuelled by an affair with a married man, Roy (Daniel Coonan) who is abusive and offensively patriarchal. Dawn (Sinead Matthews), an old childhood friend, is perhaps the only shining light in her life, full of positivity and passion and is the only one really who loves and cares for Jean.

The play takes place in Jean's small and claustrophobic flat with the second half impressively comprising of just one long drunken ‘session’ between Jean, Dawn, her asthmatic and excitable Irish husband Mick (Allen Leech) and Len (Craig Parkinson), a man from their past with perhaps a mysterious chequered history with Jean.

Friendship, disappointment, racism and desire are just some of the many themes that are explored in Leigh's play. Ecstasy, portrays the often bleak and frustrating lives of the ordinary working class through Jean, and her deep sadness at not being able to do anything to change it, and her horrific awareness that life is only going to get worse.

Brooke is fascinating as Jean, instilling in the role inherent sadness and depth. It is simply a triumph of a performance and her many private moments on stage where we glimpse the enormity of her desolate life are perfectly executed. Matthews is delightful as the fiery Dawn, and endows in the production some genuine moments of comedy that are so true to life and relatable. Her timing is on the nail, and she often proves a welcoming distraction after moments of shattering intensity. All the cast are exceptional in a production that is filled with a lot of drinking and smoking that have to be both exceedingly well timed and realistic. The lady sat next to me loudly commented at one point, "How many cigarettes have they smoked?" in a rather astonished tone, and that says it all really.

The production is a fervent example of character acting. In fact, what makes the story, and indeed the play, so entrancing are the characters laid before us. So ordinary and relatable, they are however all complex and intriguing. Leigh's production is an exquisite example for all drama school students, with Parkinson shining above the rest as a true protégé of character acting.

The production plays on a beautifully confined ‘fourth wall’ set designed by Alison Chitty, lit with subtle yet effective lighting by Paul Pyant and with added atmospheric and subdued sound, designed by John Leonard.

Ecstasy is immensely watchable and Leigh has a way of subconsciously drawing you in. Many times you will realise just how much of a ‘passive’ audience member you have become during the play but just at that moment, Leigh hurls a dramatic punch in the face, sending you spinning into an unwillingly questionable ‘active’ spectator.

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Written and directed by Mike Leigh

Starring: Siân Brooke, Daniel Coonan, Claire-Louise Cordwell, Allen Leech, Sinead Matthews and Craig Parkinson
Design: Alison Chitty
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes including one interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 9th April 2011
Reviewed by Tim Newns based on 15th March 2011 performance at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 3EU. (Tube: Swiss Cottage)

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