As messed up families go, the Domingos are off the charts. The extravagantly dysfunctional clan in Jonathan Harvey’s new play have cupboards upon cupboards of skeletons tucked away in their cluttered Blundellsands house, where sisters Garnet and Sylvie isolate themselves from the world. No wonder son-in-law Frankie tells Alyssa, the newest member of the extended family, to get out while she still can.
Even before the lights come up on Nick Bagnall’s production, the tone is established by Janet Bird’s crowded set: all faded grandeur and nostalgic knick-knacks, with something distinctly off-kilter about it. The house, like its inhabitants, seems frozen in time. Marinated in fantasy and pinot grigio, Sylvie (Josie Lawrence) lives in an imagined past – as fixed and rose-tinted as the stained glass window she believes has been modelled on her by an artist lover. At a loss for what else to do, Sylvie’s older sister Garnet (an affecting Annette Badland) stokes the make-believe, creating a safe oasis of comforting lies.
But this is a play, and so comfort must be unsettled and falsehoods must be unmasked. With inexorable dramatic logic, the skeletons begin to tumble out, as the family gather to celebrate Garnet’s 65th birthday. Sylvie’s two sons Mickey-Joe (Tony Maudsley) and Lee Lee (Nathan McMullen), born 20 years apart, come home for the evening, with respective partners Frankie (Matt Henry) and Alyssa (Gemma Brodrick) in tow. Wine loosens tongues and home truths begin to be told.
It’s hard to know what to make of this fraught family blow-out. Harvey’s script is stuffed with the tropes of domestic tragedy: long-held resentments, secrets that bubble to the surface, concealed letters that find their way into the wrong hands. It’s Ibsen turned up to 11. But the play is also aware of its own ridiculousness and threaded with moments of knowing humour, undercutting the heightened drama.
Performance is at the core of Our Lady of Blundellsands. Sylvie clings to her brief moment of fame – a bit part in Z-Cars – continuing to play to her audience even as she shuts herself away. She records a radio show for non-existent listeners and imagines a throng of adoring fans gathering outside the house. Captivatingly played by Lawrence, she’s a Norma Desmond-type, with all the brittle vanity of a fading movie star, only Sylvie was never really famous in the first place. Her desire for the limelight has been imbibed by her sons: Mickey-Joe is a drag queen known as Crystal Fist, while golden boy Lee Lee is a failed actor who Sylvie still believes is headed for the big time.
The most compelling moments are when the play’s absurdity and theatricality are most openly and gleefully acknowledged. At the close of the first half, as the truth begins to out, the whole family retreats into fantasy with a gloriously bizarre song and dance sequence, performed with stern determination by Sylvie and Garnet and boggle-eyed disbelief by newcomer Alyssa. Elsewhere, though, the show seems firmly and unironically in the territory of overwrought family drama.
There are some enjoyable gags along the way, as well as moments of unexpected tenderness and emotion. And without revealing too much, Bagnall has an ace up his sleeve for the final moments, which are as beautiful as they are heartbreaking. But while the destination leaves an impact, the ride to get there is uneven.
• At the Everyman, Liverpool, until 28 March.