Never mind the fact that many of their patrons today wear jeans and a t-shirt rather than the suit and tie so common a generation-or-so ago: going to see a new play at the theatre is still something special.
Creating more of a bond between ticket holder and actor than the cinema ever could, the hope that something important might take place on stage is surely one that keeps theatre goers returning time after time. That, and the knowledge that theatre is increasingly under threat from other forms of entertainment, supporting live productions extending the medium’s life by at least another few performances.
So it’s doubly frustrating that Edinburgh Royal Lyceum’s latest production, Curse of the Starving Class may offer its audience a fine cast and top-notch production values with one hand, only to take it all away with a dry script that, like the empty fridge so prominent on stage, gives its actors little to get their teeth into.
First performed in New York in 1978, the play focuses on the Tate family as they struggle to make ends meet. With a drunken father, Weston (Christopher Fairbank), an overly-optimistic mother, Ella (Carla Mendonça) and two children, Wesley (Christopher Brandon) and Emma (Alice Haig), each of the Tate’s are at their wits end, the sale of their farmhouse the only light at the end of the tunnel for at least two of the family.
The first scene, beginning the morning after the night before as the family recovers from the violent return to the home of a drunken Weston, brings a strong performance from Brandon as the young son so used to his father’s ways. Wesley’s monologue to the audience is stark and intelligent, the description of events from his point of view clearly hurting him inside.
Alongside Wesley’s slow talking son is the fast mouthed Emma, a sparky Alice Haig lighting up the stage with her stream of consciousness responses to the events around her.
From here the play fails to take off as might be expected, the seriousness of what is unfolding clear enough but the lack of audience insight into what makes these characters tick meaning that whether they lose their home or not doesn’t really mean much.
Moments of oddness, such as the neon lights buzzing above the house whenever someone approaches the door, or Wesley urinating on his sister’s project, once again have no substance to them and fall flat, Wesley’s later full frontal walk across the stage more distracting than strange.
Star of the show Fairbank does well with what he’s given, an unlikeable character at first who slowly gains some sympathy from the audience, if only because of the skill of the actor in making him feel real.
One pivotal scene late on in the production between Fairbank and Mendonça is upstaged by, of all things, a sheep. Placed in the kitchen earlier in the story, the animal is left to one side as husband and wife finally have their face-off, only to have the restless lamb bleat its way through their dialogue, leading to hysterics from members of the audience while drama unfolds stage left.
Brief appearances from a suitably creepy Neil McKinven as Taylor and Stewart Porter as Ellis help bring some life to the production, but they perhaps come too late.
References to poverty and over borrowing from banks may hint that the play has some relevance to modern life, but that’s not enough to save the play from its moments of inertia.
While not up to the standards of the Lyceum’s previous plays this season, Curse of the Starving Class still has moments that will stimulate some emotions in most audience members, though perhaps their just aren’t enough to make them think they’ve seen anything particularly special.
Until 11 April.
Visit the Lyceum website for booking details.