Natural Affection – Review

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The greatest tragedy to befall the American people is their utter conviction that success is assured by right.

When it doesn’t come or is lost they are left floundering, not able to comprehend their failure. Inevitably they need someone or something to blame.

The dark side of the American Dream is at the heart of William Inge’s shocking and tempestuous drama, Natural Affection, which opened this week at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London.

The play is set in the 1960s in a Chicago apartment block where hot-headed and ambitious car salesman Bernie Slovenk lives with Sue, an older and more successful woman.

The one-time bartender has his self-respect and refuses to marry her until he is on an equal footing both salary-wise and professionally.

But one stupid mistake and he finds himself unexpectedly on the scrapheap and not even 40.

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Sue, a former gymslip mother, is apparently now a lingerie buyer for a department store though the audience sees little evidence of her working.

Instead she sits at home in their tiny apartment, smoking and fretting about the imminent arrival of her teenage son Donnie who is coming to stay for Christmas.

Her desperation is palpable. Terrified of loneliness she clings to the fragile relationship she has with the volatile Bernie.

But Donnie’s arrival threatens everyone and serves as a catalyst that exposes shocking secrets from Sue’s past.

The neighbours think Donnie has been away at school but the reality is far worse – and with terrible repercussions.

Louis Cardona looks far too innocent to play a juvenile delinquent.

Fresh faced and eager to please (sometimes, gasp, rather too eager to please his mother) it’s easy to imagine the awful time he must have endured growing up alone.

But don’t be fooled by that baby-faced expression and penchant for The Twist. The boy is warped.

His mother is something else. Lysette Anthony initially seems miscast – too nervous and timid and the accent’s all wrong.

But she grows in stature during the second act as Sue is torn between the son she doesn’t know and the lover she is desperate to keep.

A single outburst of honesty, the words spat out over the body of her uncomprehending son, reveals the steeliness of a woman who condemned her son to a life of unbearable horror to allow her to follow her own dreams.

There is a lot of Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski in Bernie Slovenk and Timothy Knightley plays it to the max.

He gives an intense and thrilling performance that has the audience on the edge of their seats. You’re never sure when the next explosive outburst is coming.

Will it be when he complains that Donnie has left a dirty bath? Or when Sue imposes a sex ban during Donnie’s stay? Or when the youth disrespects him? Or when Sue slaps his face?

They’re a sorry bunch of people brought magnificently to life by a largely polished cast under the directorship of Grace Wessels.

Natural Affection runs until August 9.

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