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Hir review, Park Theatre: Felicity Huffman shines in taut black comedy

Felicity Huffman returns to acting in Hir at the Park Theatre (Photo: Pamela Raith)
Felicity Huffman returns to acting in Hir at the Park Theatre (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Hir review and star rating: ★★★★★

It must be some kind of catharsis: Desperate Housewives actor Felicity Huffman went to jail in 2019 for paying cash favours to get her daughter into an Ivy League college, and hasn’t worked since – until now. Her first foray back? A role as a mother who prioritises her child other everything else, including rational thought (she is so driven to protect them she squirts her disabled husband in the face with water whenever he tries to assert himself.)

Huffman has been uncomfortable talking about the college scandal, being evasive in a Guardian interview and refusing to talk about it at all during a podcast with the Standard. So in some ways it’s perplexing how on-the-nose this role feels. At the fringe Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, it’s also a humble return for the Oscar-nominated actor. (A recent TV show pilot wasn’t picked up, she told The Guardian.)

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So, how is she? An absolute force. Huffman gives off the vibe of someone who never stopped acting, never mind having had five years off for a jail sentence she says she’s still processing. The Desperate Housewives star’s turn is self-assured, and a whole load of fun; she must have had this sort of energy in order to push to the top of the Hollywood pile in the first place, and her return exposes more of that grit and determination.

Ultimately she’s helped by the stellar material: Hir is a bloody good play. Written in 1996 by Taylor Mac, is it a pleasingly neat but darkly effective rumination on identity, as well as what ‘home’ means to each of us, that goes from kitchen sink realism to absurdity.

Huffman plays Paige, the mother to non-binary teenager Max who lives at home with her mother, and her father Arnold, who was abusive but suffered a stroke and is now severely disabled. By her own admission Paige’s former toxic marriage and the abuse has caused her to lose the plot, and the house is a tip, with washing and furniture thrown everywhere. There are hints of Beckett in the existential abyss: the sense of needing to get on with things – day trips to the museum with Max – even though Arnold is clearly ill enough to be admitted to hospital. (He’s left in an armchair when the mother and daughter duo go out.) That’s until clean freak military son Isaac, played by Steffan Cennydd, comes home.

The set, the stinking mess of a house, designed by Ceci Calf, is so stressful to look at it makes you twitchy about getting home to tidy your own place. Director Steven Kunis adds to the tension, revelling in writer Mac’s taut, passive aggressive dialogue. Elongated scenes depict Arnold struggling to move from one part of the room to another, or Paige’s aggressive body language as she snarls around the compact living room, looking at Arnold, who disgusts her, like prey. I won’t put any spoilers here, but there is some pretty amazing stuff that happens with the set itself, which becomes a clever metaphor for the idea of a home and how that notion competes with the transience of our lives and differing desires.

It is startling how contemporary Mac’s piece, which tackles genderfluidity and non-binary identities, feels, even though it was written amid the Aids crisis in an era where homosexuality was still being condemned by some of the British media.

Huffman is particularly good doing the progressive bits: she explains what the LGBT acronym scrawled on the ceiling of the house stands for, where once presumably something far more ordinary – like paint – used to be. It is a complex role: Paige seems in almost every way a convincing ally for Max, but the irony is that her own mental health is so challenged that Max should probably move out and away from her care. Huffman gets this, exaggerating every show of adoration and making it OTT so that we’re even wary of her relationship with her beloved Max.

Thalia Dudek brings it too with their portrayal of Max, who comes across as an affable young person trying to negotiate their own space amid the trauma they’ve grown up with. Startin’s Arnold is always mesmerising; he has barely any script but the actor gets to break down this once ferocious man, showing the vulnerability that must be within us all, no matter our moral make-up.

It’d be excellent to see Hir find a bigger stage: it is brash, relevant, hilarious, surprising and utterly human in its portrayal of corruption, horror, and the ways that we cope. Bravo.

Hir plays at the Park Theatre until 16 March

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