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The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures review at Hampstead Theatre – ‘gruelling’

Tamsin Greig and the cast of The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

First performed in 2009, Tony Kushner’s latest work The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures – or iHo, as both he and Hampstead Theatre want us to call it – is a play of ideas. It is dense with them. It talks, at (great) length, about the forgotten radicalism of Italian Americans, the history of the communist movement, theology and philosophy.

Patriarch Gus (the magnificent David Calder) is a former longshoreman and a one-time Communist, who wants to end it, to check out, to kill himself. He says it’s because he has Alzheimer’s but it feels like a wider disillusionment with America, politics, life. The world he fought for has not come to pass. His struggle has been for nothing. He’s already attempted suicide once, and has announced his plans to try again.

This crisis brings the Marcantonio family together – Gus’ sister, a disconcertingly serene former nun who’s now drifting towards Christian Science, and his three children, Pill, M-T and V, and their assorted spouses and ex-spouses.

What follows is a gruelling series of debates and arguments (mostly arguments) about faith and politics, the unions. It’s like season two of The Wire, only much less gripping and with characters who talk about their “kataphatic inclinations”. There are an awful lot of theologians in iHo.

The house that is so central to Gus’ argument – he wants it sold and the money divided among his children – is a clinical three-storey tower, designed by Tom Piper. While it’s pleasing to see the height of the Hampstead Theatre space put to good use, it looks a bit like a car park stairwell not a family home, and the upper levels are only infrequently used.

The characters remain exquisitely articulate even when seething with rage (which they often are) or wracked with despair. The second act contains an extraordinary argument in which everyone yells at and over one another, their words overlapping. It’s a scene of astonishing verbal choreography, but like so much of Michael Boyd’s production, it’s lacking in dramatic clout.

The acting is of a high standard throughout. Tamsin Greig is doing some of the best work she’s ever done on stage, as nurse-turned-labour lawyer M-T, or Empty as her family call her. But given how few meaty, interesting lesbian characters there are, it’s a shame she’s playing someone who doesn’t seem to like being one very much. She seems almost physically repelled by the idea of the baby her partner is about to have (using V’s sperm) and is still diddling her ex-husband.

Richard Nelson writes plays in which American families sit around tables and argue about politics for hours, but his families feel like families. This lot feel like essays on legs. Even the hustler with whom Pill is obsessed, and has spent a fortune on, is a poetry–quoting Yale drop out.

There’s also a heavily pregnant character, M-T’s partner Maeve, whose vast belly is used like the uterine equivalent of a Chekhovian shotgun, primed to pop at the least opportune moment.

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Powerfully performed but frustratingly dense and oddly unmoving (and really, really long) play of ideas