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A CurtainUp London Review
Losing Louis

Tony: I can't take you to the stars, Sheila.
Sheila: I'm not asking for the stars; Lanzarote would do.
Losing Louis
Alison Steadman as Sheila, Brian Protheroe as Reggie and Lynda Bellingham as Elizabeth (Photo: Robert Day)
Theatre goers will be agog to hear that Alison Steadman is returning to the stage of the Hampstead Theatre, scene of her triumph in Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party. Since co-star Lynda Bellingham is another performer guaranteed to crank up the tension, it looks as if we're in for a clash of the Titanesses. Sadly this doesn't happen since Simon Mendes da Costa's play is no Abigail, rather it belongs to the Families-Exist-To-Make-Psychoanalysts-Rich school of tragic-comedy.

A single bedroom is the setting for two parallel narratives involving lawyer Louis: in the first one he is shown creating (in more than one sense of the word) the problems his sons are still struggling to deal with fifty years later.

This young Louis is quite a guy. He cheerfully impregnates Bella, best friend of his pregnant wife Bobbie, in Bobbie's own bed. Bobbie herself is equally pliant, performing oral sex on Louis rather than dashing off for the medical attention she so urgently needs. Having promised Bella he'll leave Bobbie for her -- while vowing never to leave her! -- Louis then cheats on his mistress with his wife. He then helps Bella marry another man, who is tricked into believing he's the father of her child.

What a loveable rogue!

Throughout all this, not to mention the deaths and borderline child-abuse, the only emotion Louis expresses is -- No, not guilt, remorse, shame, despair or contrition -- but irritation that the patsy bringing up his son is not a co-religionist. None the less, at his funeral fifty years later everyone remembers Louis with warmth. Their only regret, apart from one son's oedipal equivalent of a bad cold, is that they didn't know him better. This is all presented without obvious irony and the message seems to be an oddly misogynistic: "Well, he made women suffer but that's a small price to pay for two successful sons! (Even if one is a bit grumpy.)"

So there is a problem with the tone of Losing Louis: it's an uneasy hybrid of dark family tragedy and light suburban banter. We're never sure if we're in the icy wastes of Strindbergia or cosy sit-com suburbia. It is possible to blend the two genres, but this play doesn't pull it off. The first half is plodding exposition and the alert theatre-goer might enjoy the evening more by turning up for the livelier second act, they would only miss an extensive rear view of Ms Bellingham through a glass door.

Mendes da Costa tries to distract us from the fact that he doesn't really understand his own characters. Take out the sex, and saucy gags from the black-humour joke book, and you have a piece of stage-craft that could actually have been written in the 1950's. However Robin Lefevre's direction moves the play on with some competence, and the audience seemed to enjoy it.

Steadman and Bellingham are reliably magnificent. They strut and prowl and puncture the stage with their stiletto heels like suburban tigresses. You may consider it worth the visit just to see them (not to mention Liz Ascroft's set and the pert 50's dresses and underwear) but in fact the women are not given too much to do since the writer is obsessed with his menfolk. And since these are frankly rather dull, despite the efforts of an able cast, Losing Louis lumbers to an inconclusive halt rather than a conclusion. The closing scene depicts the men bonding over a long-overdue discussion of sexual minutiae. While this might have been liberating for them I suspect it had the opposite effect on the audience.

Losing Louis never achieves the lift-off into the stratosphere of farce it promises. Nor does it bring Louis himself to life. From what we see of him I'm afraid Louis doesn't seem much of a loss.

Losing Louis
Written by Simon Mendes da Costa
Directed by Robin Lefèvre

Starring: Alison Steadman, Lynda Bellingham
With: Anita Briem, Emma Cunnliffe, Jason Durr, Davod Horowitch, Brian Protheroe
Designer: Liz Ascroft
Lighting Designer: Mick Hughes
Sound Design: John Leonard
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 772 9301
Booking to 19th February 2005.
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 26th January 2005 performance at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue London NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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