James Brookes (director)
Downstairs at the Maj
His Majesty’s Theatre
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Until I attended a performance of Some Kind of Beautiful, I had thought of its author Belinda Dunbar exclusively in terms of her role as deputy general manager of His Majesty’s Theatre, a busy and efficient person in arts administration.
On a Saturday evening performance at Downstairs at the Maj, I encountered a very different incarnation of Dunbar: playwright.
Some Kind of Beautiful is a slice of life that has about it a refreshing sense of reality. Nothing jars in Act 1; its repartee had the ring of truth. It could all well have happened.
It’s not a scene of unalloyed domestic bliss. Initially, we hear Kate (Julia Jenkins) in a monologue mulling over what’s recently transpired. Paul, her partner, much loved, adored even, has succumbed to a particularly nasty cancer. She’s young, rather inexperienced and clearly devastated by the passing of an adored, fulfilling partner years her senior. The household, in the process of being dismantled, is a clutter of half-filled packing cartons – books, ornaments, a miscellany of domestic detritus.
Her meditation is abruptly and unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of two women one of whom delivers a brutally frank revelation. Paul was still legally married to her at the time of his death, after an illness through which Kate had nursed him lovingly. As Barbara (Helen Searle) brings Kate cruelly up to date, speaking of some aspects of Paul that reveal him as a not entirely attractive person, we find that he hadn’t bothered, hadn’t cared – or simply ‘forgot’- to tell Kate about his married state.
He’d never bothered to dissolve the marriage formally and – a thoughtless man – he’d never updated a will drawn up years earlier in which the prime beneficiary is his charmless wife. And although they haven’t had anything to do with one another for years, the will is no less valid than on the day it was drawn up. Of course, there’s nothing in it for Kate who only came on the scene much later.
Bitterness and withering anger are widow Barbara’s close companions through most of Act 1. Flinty, insensitive and full of anger, she holds forth with an unending stream of vindictiveness and like some beer-fuelled youth with a souped-up car, goes roaring through the lives of others causing terrible damage to innocent bystanders on the way.
In the midst of all this, her daughter, Destiny (Maree Cole), wise beyond her years – and certainly more rational and considerate than her incandescently angry mother – tries to ameliorate the bitterness of her hate. Sensing the injustice towards Julia, Maree tries to reason with her mother to give Julia (who is an innocent party) a break.
A secret, carefully kept for years, emerges with the force of a cyclone. Paul may have fathered Destiny but Barbara is not her biological mother but the offspring of another woman casually impregnated by Paul who, for all his attractiveness to women, is an arch-poep, an uber-idiot who probably thought as deeply about the consequences of his tomcat behaviour as having another tinny (probably paid for by someone else).
There are no weak links in this cast; each makes a thoroughly worthwhile contribution to the performance, no less so than in Act 2 where the writing tends to discursiveness and the narrative line, so sure and logical in Act 1, weakens.
Invisible to the audience behind his sheet music on the grand piano positioned to a corner on the stage, Tim Cunniffe is a discreet presence; the songs he has written for the actors fit seamlessly into the action. There is no jarring effect at all.