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Review: Hir (Park Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

When Oscar-nominated, Emmy and SAG Award winning actors make their UK stage debuts, we anticipate large-scale West End productions, more in line with Amy Adams’ turn in The Glass Menagerie, or Billy Crudup’s upcoming transfer of Harry Clarke. Not one to follow the trend, and herself a founding member of off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, TV and film star Felicity Huffman makes her London debut to the Park Theatre’s 200-seater, in a revival of Taylor Mac’s queer and confrontational Hir.

 

Hir, pronounced “here”, is titled for the neopronoun adopted by Max, younger sibling of dishonourably discharged Isaac. The elder child returns home to find the house in shambles, father Arnold treated as little more than a plaything, and mother Paige taking Max’s still-developing ideas around gender ideology as enforceable, undeniable facts. Pushed to the edge by years of emotional and physical torment, Paige has taken Arnold’s recent stroke as an opportunity to become the house’s dominant force, and to abandon her once-demanded duties… including cleaning and adhering to any sort of organisational system.



Mac’s play, last seen in an Arthur Darvill-fronted production at the Bush Theatre, leans into Paige’s overenthusiastic acceptance for much of its comedic appeal, and a good amount of the underlying drama. Themself preferring the pronoun “judy” but willing to accept other options, Mac paints a nuanced and sympathetic picture of both transmasc teen Max, and out of touch older brother Isaac – he loves his younger sibling dearly, but struggles to take on board what their mother has made of his home during his three years of service. Their parents, meanwhile, are drawn with broader strokes, leaving the two actors to fill in their complexities.

 

This proves not to be an issue for Huffman, a force of nature on stage who thrives in this intimate space, scoring laugh after laugh without any drop in energy. Like her eldest child’s frequent vomiting, Huffman plays Paige’s calculated whimsy and forced quirkiness as an increasingly apparent trauma response – she has endured such strict rules for so long that she now feels she must force the opposites into effect to balance some proverbial scale. Her comic timing is spot on, and her talent for one-liners instantly clear, which only adds to the impact when her dramatic prowess comes to the forefront during the second act. A stunning debut, Felicity Huffman brought no ego to the role, but a spectacular talent to the Park stage.



Arnold, the once-proud husband reduced to being dressed and made up as his home falls into disrepair, seems at first a flat role for Simon Startin. While he is left to grunt and drag himself around the space for much of the performance, the more lucid moments carry some genuine pathos, and his physicality is undoubtedly impressive. As his son, Steffan Cennydd makes a brilliant straight man to Huffman’s comedienne, but also brings a good deal of compassion to his portrayal of a young man putting aside years of resentment to take care of an unwell parent. Particularly believable is the spontaneity of Isaac’s reactive vomiting, which seems to genuinely come unplanned but is never fully explained – the audience are left to draw their own conclusions about the trauma behind the response.

 

Max, the teenage outcast whose transition and self-education much of Paige’s newfound “freedom” has been constructed around, is brought brilliantly to life by Thalía Dudek. Strong-willed and opinionated, Dudek’s Max is a typical teenager – sure of their own beliefs, eye-rolling at hir mother’s blind acceptance of those ideas xe’s totally moved on from, and genuinely struggling just below the surface. As observed by the matriarch, Dudek’s performance becomes more swaggering, more typically masculine, as the evening progresses, while also more open to the ideas hir brother brings back to the house, and more willing to embrace hir once-hated father. 



Director Steven Kunis makes tremendous use of his space, having the rearrangement of furniture as a genuine part of the storytelling and keeping the cast in motion to mirror the power struggles as Paige’s new queendom is threatened. It’s hard to say whether the blame for the slight confusion around Isaac’s trauma responses should lie purely with Mac opting out of wrapping up the subplot, or if Kunis ought to have added some subtle touches that clarified his version of the answer. Still, he draws out assured, commanding performances that could easily transfer to a larger space but don’t overwhelm the 200-seater, and his control of the show’s real-time pacing (act one is the beginning of a day, and act two its early evening) is commendable.

 

Perhaps the surprise star of the evening was Ceci Calf as the set and costume designer. Not only are her wardrobe and backdrop choices central to establishing this as an early-noughties narrative, but her deliberately hideous dressing of patriarch Arnold get some of the earliest laughs. Her finest contribution is the set itself, a scaled-up recreation of a box-turned-dollhouse seen on stage for much of the show – unfolded as a messy, almost completed neglected house for act one, it later folds up to reveal the hand-painted exterior, before re-opening to reveal the results of Isaac’s 12 hour deep clean.



Loud, proud, and eventually deeply affecting, Hir is a welcome addition to the London theatre scene, as is its leading lady. The first, but not only, chance you’ll have to see a Desperate Housewife on stage this year, this one forgoes the Prada for a down-to-earth charm and piles of crumpled laundry. Joined by a strong on-stage family and armed with a strong, tightly-written script, Huffman’s UK debut is easy to recommend, and hard not to like.

 

Hir plays at the Park Theatre until March 16th

 

For tickets and information visit https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/hir/

 

Photos by Pamela Raith

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