Desire Under the Elms – Review – Sheffield Crucible
Desire Under the Elms – Review
Sheffield Crucible, September 2017
by Sarah Morgan
For those of us raised on a televisual diet of light entertainment during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s hard to think of Matthew Kelly without seeing a vision of the ever-smiling host of Game For A Laugh, You Bet! and Stars In Their Eyes.
However, the Lancashire-born performer was an actor before turning to presenting, having had a stint alongside the likes of Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre in the 1970s.
In the 13 years since returning to acting full-time, Kelly has concentrated mostly on theatre work, and is currently topping the bill at The Crucible in Sheffield during a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms. Indeed, if he were to introduce himself on Stars In Their Eyes, he would no doubt say, “tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be Ephraim, a hard-bitten old New England farmer suffering from an overdose of pride”. And what a transformation it is!
Kelly is almost unrecognisable, with flowing white locks and bushy beard, while the light voice we remember from TV has been turned into something gruff here; if you didn’t already know it was him, you would never guess the identity of the actor playing this self-centred character. And there can surely be no higher praise for an actor’s skill than that.
He’s also mastered an American accent, although initially, it takes some time for the audience’s ear to grow accustomed to the pronunciations adopted by the cast; in fact, one viewer jokingly suggested during the interval that an interpreter would have come in handy.
Despite being easily the most recognisable member of the cast, Kelly is not the lead. Michael Shea has that privilege as Eben, Ephraim’s youngest and most rebellious son.
Angry at his father’s constant dismissal of him and his treatment of his now dead mother, Eben is an angry young man who, despite his best efforts to keep her at arm’s length, falls in love with Ephraim’s much-younger new wife and they embark on a dangerous affair.
This being an O’Neill play, you’re already aware that the tale isn’t going to end well, and sure enough, tragedy strikes this young couple who, in other circumstances, could have lived happily ever after.
Aoife Duffin plays Abbie, the object of Eben and Ephraim’s desire, while a small but talented supporting cast help move the plot along with music and song.
Designer Chiara Stephenson, Jon Clark, who is in charge of lighting, and sound expert Nick Greenhill also deserve full marks for adding depth to the proceedings.
Although not always easy viewing, Desire Under The Elms is a gripping piece of theatre buoyed by a collection of superb performances, not least from the esteemed Mr Kelly.
Images: Marc Brenner