32 years after it opened there back in 1979, Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy is revived at Hampstead Theatre, with Leigh himself at the helm as director once again and Alison Chitty revising her role as designer. It’s a fascinating, heartrending drama about isolation, hardship and frustrated dreams; no less relevant several decades on, with some of its more dated references – Baby Bellings, Ford Cortinas – even acquiring a retro charm.
Jean is a desperately unhappy young woman who lives in a cramped Kilburn bedsit and spends her days working as a garage attendant, where she does little but ‘stare at a bloody brick wall all day’. Her self-respect eroded by the daily grind, by loneliness and disappointment, she drinks her way through life and throws herself away on casual encounters with unsuitable men.
The first act consists of a few scenes in Jean’s room, establishing her relationship with her best friend, Dawn, and giving us a flavour of her disastrous love life. Again and again, she is left alone in her tiny bedsit; again and again she mechanically reaches for the bottle of gin hidden in the bottom of her wardrobe. In the comparatively long second act – which is a single, lengthy scene – Jean returns home from the pub with Dawn and her husband Mick, and their estranged friend, Len, where they proceed to get systematically hammered and chain-smoke the night away. It is only at the end of the night, after Dawn and Mick have staggered home and Len awkwardly rejects her proposition, that Jean can no longer contain her despair.
All in all, it’s a bleak, gritty study of working class life, inner-city poverty and drinking culture. But it’s not all rape and abortions. There’s plenty of humour amid the alcohol abuse, the sexual violence and the casual racism. Sinead Matthews is charming as the loud-mouthed mother-of-three, Dawn, and Allen Leech exercises brilliant comic timing as her drunken Irish husband, Mick. Craig Parkinson plays nice but dull Len with a wonderfully irritating, drawling, nasal monotone, while Sian Brooke conveys the pitiable Jean’s valiant attempts at stoicism with an exquisite subtlety. Nothing much happens in the course of the play; this being Leigh, it’s entirely character-driven, and these ordinary, everyday characters and the tedium of their lives are completely recognisable – and possibly even more heartbreaking for it. It’s more like a snapshot, a vignette of loneliness: very sensitive, very observant, depressingly true to life.
Production shot by Alastair Muir.