Review by Sam Waite
When taking on a new role, actors can generally rest assured that they will have the same ample amount of time to settle themselves into and find their take on the character as their co-stars. Such was not the case with Leaves of Glass, playing at the Park Theatre in its first UK production since its initial 2007 run – during the final week of rehearsals for the rest of the cast, former EastEnders star Kacey Ainsworth stepped into the shoes of the initially-announced Geraldine Alexander.
In director (and long-time fan of the play) Max Harrison’s new production, Ainsworth steps into the role of Liz, mother of main character Steven and his younger brother Barry. Steven manages a successful graffiti cleaning company where he also employs Barry, and early in the play his girlfriend Debbie announces her pregnancy. Seemingly with a solid life trajectory, Steven becomes increasingly unmoored by his partner and remaining family (their father passed years before) becoming increasingly on edge around him, and accusations gradually beginning to surface.
Phillip Ridley’s script, considered by many a modern classic, explores the malleability of memory and the lack of reliability a person’s account of events may contain. While allusions and outright accusations are made of domestic and child abuses, and the inflicting of physical and emotional damage on others, the only things the audience can know for certain happened are those we’ve seen play out. As the story plays out, we see how the characters themselves will rewrite their history to seem more loving, supportive, or likeable – Liz comments near the end how desperately she’d wanted to have one of Barry’s paintings on her living room wall, having earlier stated his work wasn’t something you’d want on your wall with the air of a scathing insult.
Harrison’s direction does try to lean into these revised repetitions – this moment of playing the more supportive, affectionate mother is punctuated with a look and gesture to the same side of the in-the-round staging as her initial jab. While he and Ridley both do well to keep us off-balance and questioning the backstories being provided, weaknesses do show through with the more mundane, everyday moments in the character’s lives. The first scene between Steven and Debbie felt stilted and awkward, devoid of the chemistry the characters and actors would prove to have soon after, and a scene introducing the professional dynamics between the two brothers came across as meandering and difficult to keep track of.
Ridley, Harrison, and the cast of four are all at their best with the heightened, more intense moments. Arguments between characters determined that their version of their shared history is accurate are served beautifully by Harrison’s refusal to present any of them as more kindhearted, less capable of malice, more likely a villain, than any of the others. Whoever was framed as the centre of this cacophony of past grievances and misremembered slights would work equally well as a protagonist, and for a while it would be easy to believe any of them as a more trustworthy source.
Left with little to do in her first scenes, Katie Buchholz turns in a dynamic, fiery performance as Debbie once her own feelings bubble to the surface. Increasingly at odds with her so-called partner and feeling more and more like she can’t trust him, it’s painfully easy to relate to her frustrations when they spill over into genuine fury. Likewise, Ned Costello’s Steven begins the play down to earth, a largely calm young man, but develops into someone possessed by rage and confusion, alternately easy to despise and difficult to not feel sympathy for.
Ainsworth’s shorter time to prepare has not hindered her work, and she fits nicely into the cast as Liz, whose lifelong preference for her older son would be apparent without being stated and with only her physical responses to Steven and Barry. Coddling and bordering on too sweet with Steven, and almost wilfully dismissive of Barry, Ainsworth’s performance strikes the right balance of charm and resentment in an ageing parent. The strongest performance may be that of younger son Barry, played by Joseph Potter – fragile and visibly damaged from the get-go, Potter still managed to find different levels of drama and comedy in a character whose ending was unfortunately abrupt and, despite his stellar performance, slightly clumsy.
Lighting by Alex Lewer helps to set the tone and atmosphere of certain scenes, where a lamp hanging from the ceiling – and later a naked bulb to indicate a barely used cellar – help to define locations. The sound design by Sam Glossop is mostly effective, soft background noise helping to keep the tension of certain scenes going, and using silence for impact when emotional states are altered and left to settle. Much praise must also go to the intimacy and fight coordination of Lawrence Carmichael, who handled physical confrontations particularly well, and crafted believable fighting while keeping the actors safe.
Far from perfect, and at times bringing the less assured elements of the text to starker attention, this new production of Leaves of Glass still handles the central theme of distorted memory with delicacy and drive. The talents of the cast help to sell this theme, and the collective abilities of author, director, and performers to walk the fine line of being truly sympathetic and deeply flawed helps to smooth over the cracks as they threaten to open wider. Leaves of Glass may lose its balance, but the talent on hand never allows it to fall and shatter.
Leaves of Glass plays at the Park Theatre until June 3rd.
For information and tickets, visit https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/leaves-of-glass
Photos by Mark Senior