"A 'grim up north' solution?"
by Joe Crystal for remotegoat on 26/10/13

Welsh poet and playwright Dannie Abse has just celebrated his 90th birthday and what better way to commemorate this than the first professional revival in 50 years of House Of Cowards at Hampstead’s Pentameters Theatre. The play is set in 1958, the same year he was the first author to perform at the theatre which producer Léonie Scott-Matthews founded and has operated ever since and which also marks its 45th anniversary.

Centred around the Hicks family in the fictitious northern town of North Willingstone, who supplement their income with lodgers, the excitement is palpable when a motivational guru called Adam Shemtov is about to descend to give a talk at the local community hall. With each of them repressing or hiding something, there is hope of internal redemption but nothing runs as smooth as it should. The presence of a mysterious ‘energetic’ Mr Nott, a newpaper reporter and a local spiv only serve to make the piece quite surreal and bleak.

Having said that, the cast make a valiant effort to provide a palette of colour amongst the greyness of John Dalton’s adequately sparse set. Christopher Poke’s Mr Nott is a bizarre mix of professorial eccentricity and creepy uncle as he sets about searching for his friend Mason and contemplating suicide for no apparent reason. It isn’t clear if he is some ‘quack’ at the start as he examines Ian by pressing on his funny bone. Damian Regan is endearing as Ian and Kevin (his twin brother, the aforementioned spiv).

Michael Halden superbly portrays the manipulative Bill Hicks, more contemptuous of his family than his lodgers while as wife Doris, Victoria Kempton has the nervous energy of a hungry fox. Jack Badley plays their son George, who’ll do anything to secure a ticket for Shemtov and escape his dreary existence as a junior librarian. He’s dashing and charismatic and conveys great emotional range from anger and frustration with his parents whilst depicting his delicate and tender romantic side with fiancé Sheila, played by Charlotte Gallagher. They seem well suited but she isn’t a walkover when she discovers he’s been gambling and calls off the engagement.

Though written many years after the end of the Second World War, the play was inspired by the events of the Holocaust and is a cynical comedy which highlights the perils of believing in the hype and the desperation that leads people to search for an improvement to their humdrum existence. However much it seems relevant to today, with the bombardment of social media in all our lives, it’s hard to relate with much of the fragmented rhetoric drawn out by the characters’ mediocre existence. Despite their optimism being misguided, it makes for more of a depressing outlook which only those of a certain seniority might find nostalgic.

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