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Stage Review: Surviving the hen night from Hell

TIM WALKER gives four stars to 3Women at London’s Trafalgar Studios 2


Trafalgar Studios 2, London, until June 9

**** (Four stars)

The playwright Alan Bennett once noted that every family has a secret – and the secret is it isn’t like any other family. Katy Brand’s new comedy drama 3 Women certainly doesn’t challenge that assumption. In fact, it makes the case that a great many families are groupings of profoundly dysfunctional individuals who would be eminently happier if they were kept at least 100 miles apart from each other.

Even as they check into their hotel suite, Debbie Chazen, Anita Dobson and Maisie Richardson-Sellers – the three actresses playing the title roles – make it clear just from their body language that they know they have made a terrible mistake. The initial bitching between them makes it clear enough this isn’t going to be a hen night so much as a blood-splattered, no-holds-barred pit bull terrier fight.

The unseen fiancé of Suzanne (Chazen) has, with the best of intentions, laid on the suite for the ladies so that the woman he’s going to marry the next day and Laurie (Richardson-Sellers) – her daughter from a previous brief liaison – and her imperious widowed mum Eleanor (Dobson) should have a chance to ‘bond’.

They square up to each other on a stage at the Trafalgar Studios that is so small that if you stretch out your legs you are liable to trip up a member of the ensemble. With this sort of proximity, you need proper, grown-up thespians to make a show work: a single lapse in concentration is magnified when you are just a few feet away from their faces.

Happily, the director Michael Yale can count on three great professionals. Dobson – best known for playing Angie Watts in EastEnders – is on toe-curlingly ghastly form as the matriarch who clearly takes a sadistic pleasure in needling her middle-aged daughter about her weight, her dismal job prospects and her failure to live up to the high hopes that she had once had for her.

There is an affecting world-weariness, meanwhile, to Chazen as her punch-bag of a daughter, taking all the knocks at first, but gradually, as the long night progresses, landing a few devastating blows of her own.

The revelation is, however, Richardson-Sellers as Laurie, the spirited third generation of the family. Her character is a free-thinking teenager who, between going on about gender fluidity and getting off with the waiter (Oliver Greenall, making the most of a limited part), proves to be the peacemaker. Richardson-Sellers is a wonderfully natural actress who brings life and charm to what could all too easily have become a forgettable stock character.

Unstartlingly, the audience the show attracted when I went to see it was predominantly middle-aged and female, but Brand’s work is much too clever, funny and brilliantly acted to be categorised as just another women’s play. It talks to everyone because we have all, of course, and whether we like it or not, come from families.