A powerful new play by the author of Plenty and Skylight. The Amy of the title is the daughter of a successful actress, Esme Allen, and her view is that love has to be given unconditionally. The play represents the fact that such love is in very short supply. Esme, played with great intensity and presence by Judi Dench, is the widow of Bernard Allen, a painter whose reputation fell into permanent eclipse after his death; he left behind a mother, wife, and daughter — Amy, played with matching intensity and sympathy by Samantha Bond, a beautiful soulful redhead torn between love and friendship for her mother and the love of her life (name? — my program is not at hand). Amy has two children by this very ambitious man, eventually marries him — and dies, the cause of death being left unexplained. Esme meanwhile acquires a sort of partner, played with convincing tentativeness and lack of backbone by Ronald Pickup in a finely modulated performance. He manages her financial affairs and at length drives her into limitless debt. And so the story of Esme and her family is one of loss, reminiscent of Dench’s Mother Courage at the National last year (or the year before), and of survival. There are some cunning political insights in the script that made this audience of London insiders laugh knowingly, and there is much in the play to convince us that it is all about family relationships. But at the real center of the play is a focus on the difficulty, if not impossibility, of unconditional love. One can almost see it as a sort of morality play, in which Esme, a kind of Everywoman, is visited with the consequences of her inability to see the world through any eyes but her own. And yet the question remains, does she deserve to be stripped bare of all her resources except a seemingly indomitable will to go on? The last scene of this four-act play (see Hare’s comment on the four-act form in his program note) shows Esme and her new “son,” Toby, a fellow actor, “going on” — that is, making an entrance into blinding light, each having poured water over the head of the other, in a kind of baptism.
It seems we are meant to see a new beginning here; or else this is a transformation scene, oddly allegorical after the realism of most of the play and most especially after the main scene of Act IV, in Esme’s dressing room, where Amy’s former husband, now remarried, comes to renew contact with her and, not so incidentally, to leave her a “present.” The present is a box containing bundles of banknotes, intended to bail her out of the two million pounds of debt. She leaves the notes in disarray on the table, and goes to make her entrance.
It is a harrowing play, though full of laughs early on before reality sets in, and a sad one as well. Life is cruel, and relentlessly unforgiving, it seems. Some of us are lost in it, others able to go on.