A staircase still remembered

In the dark on the stairs: Philip Labey as Sonny Flood. Pictures:  Robert Day

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

**** 

How many of William Inge's plays are staged in Britain nowadays? He wrote many of them. Yet as he himself feared, following their lack of success from 1959 and especially shortly before his untimely death in 1973, their destiny, unlike those of Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams (to whom The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is dedicated), was to be largely forgotten.

Though, thanks to this admirably spirited production - the Belgrade Theatre under Hamish Glen being so bold and daring in its repertoire – that is not entirely the case.

It was a terrific let-down for a playwright who had seemed on a par with them all - even Arthur Miller. In the 1950s Inge won two major prizes or awards (a Pulitzer and a Tony). The New York press lionised him; the public applauded. James Dean was cast in one play; Warren Beatty in another. Several were made into successful films. One, Bus Stop, starred Marilyn Monroe. Yet two decades later, at 60, Inge would commit suicide, from carbon monoxide poisoning, out of sheer resentment and disappointment; albeit seasoned by alcohol and drug abuse.

Inge was a mid-Westerner – born in Kansas, he taught in Missouri before his successes on Broadway. Latterly his home was California. He was gay, at a time when it was dangerous to be so.

How far this obliquely colours his work, and his semi-autobiographical discussions of family relations and human tensions, as it did Williams' masterpieces, is harder to say. It only rarely features in his work.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, which ran to acclaim in 1957, is a reworking of his first play, Farther Off from Heaven, which was written ten years earlier with Tennessee Williams' encouragement.

Heavily tinged, like many of Inge's plays, by his own growing up in Independence, Kansas, it is a 1920s story of a dysfunctional family drawn together by economic necessity but splitting at the seams emotionally.

Olivia Vinall as Reenie in The Dark at the top of the Stairs. Her $19 coming of age dress was to create a huge parental row.

Andrew Whipp plays Rubin Flood, the simple-minded, testy, prosaically straightforward, bullying and seemingly womanising father, a travelling salesman (as Inge's was), with bluster, humourlessness, a seeming incapability to relate to his own children, and an annoying modern raincoat that restricts his movements and seems troublingly out of place. It is a compelling performance, if not quite a persuasive one.

Rubin's wife Cora draws the short straw. Caroline Faber – she has National Theatre experience and RSC too, including Shakespeare's re-enfranchised Edward III – started almost disastrously, not being audible even in the intimate studio theatre. She soon materialised, however, into a substantial performer: mollifying, patient, put-upon (and, one imagines, beaten for her pains); and defensive of her all-too threatenable children: 16-year-old Reenie (Olivia Vinall), shyly blossoming into adulthood; and Sonny (Philip Labey), not even yet a teenager.

The playing of these two youngsters was a joy: in the potentially thankless task of ‘pretending' to be a starry-eyed, Hollywood star-obsessed ten- or twelve-year-old,  Labey came not just closeish, but strikingly close, to producing a genuine kiddie (like Bert in All My Sons):  excitement and hero-worship written across his face, given to frenetic changes of mood; and by the end, agonised enough, and pitchforked into premature maturity by the oppressive domestic tensions.

Inge characterises the children touchingly; and they yield incident: Reenie's newly-purchased, $19 dress – effectively a coming-of-age outfit – unleashes the massive parental row, dragging in not just money (a vital issue in the pre-crash Mid-West) and the desperate need to make it, but loyalty and fidelity too, which provides the biggest outburst of the evening. Vinall, slender, delicate, beautiful, un-savvy, innocent - almost, it might seem, a candidate for an abused child - ensured that vulnerability was writ large upon the stage. All were vulnerable; she was apocalyptically so.

The other characters bring a mix of salve and poison. I enjoyed Graham Vanas's sheepishly naïve and submissive husband (Morris Lacey, a dentist), who quietly sleeps his way through women-on-women banter and bickering, and probably dozes off pulling teeth too.

For peace of mind, perhaps he should have played with the hyperactive Sonny, for director Lisa Forrell (who has an enviable record in bringing to the stage lesser-known repertoire), despite so much beautifully observed invention, gives Morris precious little to do; which I suppose suits his character ideally. Being a couch potato is safe: it avoids conflict.

It is the exhaustion and disillusion of family life, plucked from his Kansas boyhood, that Inge manages to imply so well. The play is not perfect: one might query elements of the pacing and design, and certain ends left untied. But The Dark at the Top of the Stairs generates numerous sensitively observed vignettes, including some telling monologues, that throw light on one or more characters.

One such is the arrival of a potential suitor for Reenie, the US serviceman Sammy Goldenbaum. His engagement with each of those on stage is intense, humbling, and in it way electrifying. He does not mind discussing his Jewishness – still a big issue of the day in the 1920s – with his hosts, or with anyone.

He is honest, agreeable, straight-dealing. Unlike most onstage, he does not manipulate. Like a kind of angel-figure, he instils an almost hallowed silence. His subsequent suicide, a few hours later, conceivably doesn't ring true. Inge has not prepared it enough; it feels not just astonishing, but inept. Thus a major crux in the play (coming too soon after the interval, it turned out) was a damp squib. We didn't feel ‘Oh, I see now; I didn't read the signs.' There were none.

Jenny-May Darcy as Flirt who needs to be the centre of attention and Benjamin Durber as Punky Givens

One who adores manipulating – or at least being centre of the show – was Reenie's friend, the splendidly-named Flirt. Flirt can do anything – as long as she's the centre of attention. This Jenny-May Darcy achieves brilliantly. She twirls and twiddles, pouts and preens, wangles and witters, controls who does what, and (albeit not quite up to Vinall's teenager) is genuinely beautiful.

Does she steal the show? Well, jolly nearly, because she is so effective, and entrancing, onstage (and designer Ruari Murchison's costume designs – and wig – did Darcy proud). Amid the tension, she furnished the fun. So did Jessica Martin's nicely acidic aunt – Lottie Lacey, the dentist's wife and Cora Faber's sister, who deployed a delicious range of subtly varied rapier thrusts – mock-charming, posy, needling, acidic, ultimately viperish. Her red costume gave her a diabolic touch; not unaptly.

But it is her sister, Cora, on whom the weight of responsibility, and the moral onus, falls. The play will end with reconciliation, but there is perhaps some shortage of justification: it is clear that, despite all, she loves Rubin; but Inge, it could be argued, simply does not give us, her loyalty and the formal traditions of the era apart,  sufficient marital data about this relationship to see the sense of this.

There is just a whiff of immaturity in this, still in essence his first play. The inevitability of the group dynamics one finds in, say, Death of a Salesman or The Glass Menagerie, is arguably not there. This may be because Inge is passionate about giving us ordinary, real people, without as it were poetically stylising them, as Miller does, so brilliantly and succinctly, with Eddie Carbone or Joe Keller. Inge's explosions are affecting, but not gut-wrenching; in fact, not Ibsen. 

Cora fights her corner. It is when roused, loudly reproachful, fuming that Caroline Faber scores most strongly. Passive, she occasionally loses momentum; assertive, she gains it. But her performance, like Vinall's, had depths; and as a result, the entire cast were enmeshed in something deeper, as a whole, than the mere sum of its parts. Forrell's use of exits and entrances was marginally plain: one exit looked, or felt, like an unfinished lobby, the delayed, messy exits it necessitated seeming untidy and perhaps pointless.

The room entered at rear gave no inkling of identity: it could have been characterised, the room at the top being also out of sight – eyeless, as it were. The main feature on Ruari Murchison's set (he has a host of provincial and out of London credits, including an RSC Titus Andronicus, a Hamlet at Elsinore and two musicals – West Side Story and The Sound of Music – for Stratford, Ontario) was a giant staircase, soaring above the living room as if to suggest some greater presence or higher authority.

It was underused – only Reenie has a short sequence midway up – but came to gain a limp, loose symbolic force when, reconciled, and the children gone, Cora and Rubin make their way up at the close to a night of not tentative but (we take it) ardent, unlit lovemaking. The only moment, perhaps, when we are really conscious of dark at the top of the stairs. To 10-11-12

Roderic Dunnett  

23-10-12

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