City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Review: Curse of the Starving Class

By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 24 March 2009

Show Details
Royal Lyceum Company
Mark Thomson (director), Georgia McGuinnes (design), Jeannine Davies (Lighting) Lynn Bains (Dialect coach)
Christopher Fairbank (Weston), Carla Mendonca (Ella), Christopher Brandon (Wesley), Alice Haig (Emma), Neil McKinven (Taylor), Stewart Porter (Ellis), Mark McDonnell (Sgt Malcolm/Slater), Jordan Young (Emerson)
Running time: 

As a social satire, Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class (1978) combines a profound, semi autobiographical commentary on 1950s American rural life with a surreal black farce. The plot follows the dysfunctional, malnourished Tate family as their aspirations and ambitions disintegrate with the bricks and mortar of their farmhouse and the myth of the America dream.

The "Steinbeck country" setting is the kitchen of a small, ramshackle ranch in southern California - brilliantly designed (Georgia McGuinness) like a full scale doll's house, opened up to feature the wallpapered bedroom and attic of old junk upstairs, and the period kitchen with working hob, sink and giant refrigerator.

We meet the Tate family one by one, all at their own crossroads in life: Ella, the Mother,  slim, youthful, fashionable, performed with cool attitude and sharp wit by Carla Mendonca.  Standing in her bathrobe with curlers in her hair, she fries bacon as she dreams of travelling to Europe to experience history, culture, romance; Emma, her rebellious teenage daughter, is desperate to grow up and leave home; Wesley, the son, is a young man distraught and depressed at their impoverished existence; and Weston, the Father, 90% absent from home, former WWII pilot now an alcoholic loner who is secretly planning a fresh start in Mexico.

Wesley seems to be the only one keen to keep the farm going, as he nurses a sick lamb (a real fluffy lamb baaing right on cue), saws planks of wood to mend a smashed front door, and gazes into the refrigerator, hungry for the missing nourishment and nurturing love from his wayward parents. Although he portrays his quietly haunting, melancholic character, Christopher Brandon's occasional over-the-top acting style is a tad ponderous and robotic.

There's a strong and subtle performance from Christopher Fairbank as the father, a pitifully sad and lost soul, who slowly reveals a soft heart beneath his drunken rage. The young Alice Haig is also impressive as the loud mouthed Emma, capturing her pent up frustrations like a caged bird.

The narrative of this Absurd drama (inspired by Shepard's own scarred father and distorted family life after the war) is rich in symbolism: sacrificial lambs, Emma, experiencing her first period is her own personal "curse", broken down doors, broken cars, runaway horses, broken lives.

Setting a realistic scene in the first act,  Mark Thomson's intelligent, insightful direction then focuses on the underlying truth behind the masquerade they are all playing. Mixed emotions, anger, guilt and secret dreams are dramatised through stylised, poetic monologues, freeze frame action and vibrantly coloured by hilarious scenes of bizarre, often coarse and crude, humour. And centre stage is the repetition of neon spotlights glowing in the dark from the open door of the iconic empty ice box.

Show runs Royal Lyceum Theatre, 20 March to 11 April, 2009.