Other Desert Cities (review) at The Old Vic

Martha Plimpton in Other Desert Cities

Family secrets are occasionally best left hidden and the Wyeth family have more cause than most to keep quiet about the terrible truth of their past.

But a nuclear bomb is dropped by daughter Brooke during a tense Christmas get-together in the salubrious surroundings of a Palm Springs mansion in sunny California.

Her troubled relationship with her parents comes under threat in the Jon Robin Baitz drama, Other Desert Cities, which opened at The Old Vic this week.

The theatre has played around with its stage design to launch a season in the round and director Lindsay Posner keeps it intimate, creating a metaphorical boxing ring, where parents and children slug it out.

Set in 2003, Polly and Lynam Wyeth are, to the disgust of their only daughter, Old Guard Republicians.

Lynam (Peter Egan) is a former action hero of Hollywood movies who became an ambassador while his glamorous blonde wife was one half of a script-writing success story, sharing the honours with her reprobate sister, the pill-popping, alcoholic Silda (Clare Higgins enjoying herself immensely).

Palm Springs is the playground of the elderly rich and famous. It’s paradise and an anathema to the east coast-loving Brooke who dislikes pretty much everything about her parents’ privileged lifestyle and her own WASP upbringing.

Brooke struggles with demons from her family’s past and overcomes her writer’s block with a cathartic memoir about her family that threatens her relationship with her parents, and theirs with the outside world.

It’s an engrossing scenario which builds throughout the 130-minute play as the parents fight to keep the book under wraps.

Sinéad Cusack, as Polly is an ultra right-wing Conservative.

She’s best friends with Nancy (Regan), sports the same groomed, Stepford Wives, appearance, hits the drinks trolley before breakfast and is ruthless in protecting her reputation.

Cusack’s American accent is flawless as she gives a confident performance throughout.

Martha Plimpton’s Brooke is single-minded, driven, selfish and emotionally fragile. She doesn’t care who her book hurts so long as it’s helpful to her mental recovery.

She’s not a particularly sympathetic character but parents everywhere will recognise the signs of a wilful daughter rebelling against authority.

Other Desert Cities poses interesting questions about family dynamics and how much information parents should impart to their children. Should they be burdened and suffer, or be left in ignorance, and suffer more?

Peter Egan accent isn’t entirely convincing but he more than makes up for it with a fine turn as a troubled father struggling to save his family from imploding under the weight of a tragic past.

There’s a nice twist but it wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Running until May 24.

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