Other Desert Cities – Old Vic

How well do you know your family, and do you think they’d have the same perspective on key events that you do? The way that you remember your childhood or how you dealt with tough times, do you think your parents and siblings think of it the same way? Do they know more or less about it that you do, or perhaps their perspective is just different? These are some of the questions that Other Desert Cities considers when it brings the Wyeth family back together for a pool-side Christmas in Palm Springs.

Devastated by the suicide of her elder brother Henry a few years earlier, Brooke has suffered a period of hospitalising depression and returns home for the first time in 6 years to spend Christmas with her parents, brother and aunt. To deal with her issues, and aided by her recovering alcoholic aunt, Brooke has written a literary memoir about the family and, as she sees it, their cold responsibility for Henry’s political radicalisation and subsequent death. Then comes the snag; the book is due to be reviewed in the New Year and Brooke has not only to reveal her secret to the family, but give them time to read the manuscript and digest its accusatory tone. As events play out and family tensions escalate, Brooke’s blindness is revealed through the alternative perspectives of her relations, and she learns how far parental love has extended.

This is a fascinating production that effectively builds tension by enhancing a number of contrasting factors, most notably in the various personalities on display. Brooke, played by Martha Plimpton, is somewhat earnest, seemingly grounded but also determined to ‘defeat’ her overbearing mother by publishing come-what-may. Meanwhile her surviving brother Trip (who was too young to remember the events at hand) is a producer making mindless TV for the masses, living a shallow existence in LA and wanting an easy life. But it’s their parents Polly and Lyman – the ever brilliant Sinead Cusack and Peter Egan – who are in every sense the real stars of this show. It is their characters and behaviour which drive the actions of the play forward, and trying to understand their motivation is at the heart of Brooke’s memoir.

Lyman is a former actor, Regan-esquely famous for tough guy roles, who moved into politics and local society. On the surface at least, he’s calm and constrained, essential a peaceable man which he maintains by refusing to engage with these tragic memories. Some of the best and most moving moments come when Lyman is forced, by his daughter’s actions, to confront what happened to his family and the part he played in bringing it about. Peter Egan is simply wonderful in this role, first belligerently blocking his ears to his daughter’s betrayal and then dissolving as he’s forced to finally reveal the truth. Sinead Cusack’s Polly is quite a different creature; outwardly made of stone, Polly found limited fame writing a series of films in 70s before becoming a society wife. But make no mistake, she is in charge of this family and her abhorrence of any human weakness has shaped the lives of her children. The scenes between Brooke and Polly are some of the most intense and Cusack maintains a glacial pose whilst still creating a sense of depth and supressed emotion in the character, an inkling of which we see towards the end. This is really great stuff.

The intimacy of this play is aided by the Old Vic’s new ‘round-space’ which, as in 2008 with the Norman Conquests, has reconfigured the traditional proscenium arch stage and stalls, meaning the audience now sees the action from every angle and there’s no way for the characters to escape our insight. It’s a pretty impressive idea and an imaginative use of the space, so I’m glad to see it reinstalled this year. Other Desert Cities is a perfect season opener, full of great performances and plenty to think about next time you embark on a fraught family Christmas.

Other Desert Cities is at the Old Vic until 24 May. Tickets start at £16.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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