Closer – Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Writer: Patrick Marber

Director: Adam Lacey

Reviewer:  John Kennedy

Are truth and honesty the antidote to the disease of love’s mutual self-deception or does it just poison it more?

This is a provocative and accomplished adaptation of Marber’s award-winning play. A spiral of spiritual and sexual politics where perfidy and infidelity appear to be the only policies our disparate, often floundering characters, can agree to disagree and fight over. That’s in spite or because of the constant bed-swopping.

Anna tells Alice that, as for the men in their lives, with whom they share in a tragi-comic misery-go-round, something to the effect that, ‘We women arrive with our baggage and they are our baggage handlers – they seem to have none – until a juggernaut of the stuff arrives!’

Dan (Matt Christmas) writes broadsheet obituaries and will soon have his debut novel published. (It will be slaughtered by the critics.) Dan runs hot and cold. Dan is running away. His novel is loosely based on the young, enigmatic and beautiful Alice’s (Hannah Fretwell) life so far. The play opens at an A&E. His taxi knocked her over. Ever the gallant he takes her there. There’s no obvious damage, yet. But it’s the last time he demonstrates any gallantry. We notice that odd question mark scar on Alice’s leg – a recurrent and potent cypher that resonates throughout the play.

Anna (Dru Stephenson) is an aspiring creative photographer. She has doubts: is her aesthetic compromised by aiming to reassure not challenge her potential affluent clients?

Larry (Paul Findlay) uses online sex chat rooms and strip clubs. Larry is a dermatologist, he tends to get under your skin – and makes it crawl.

It’s complicated, it’s Friends reimagined by Mike Leigh. Everyone is getting closer … to the edge. Behind the traverse stage/seating plan two screens project contextual uses of the word ‘close’.

Theirs is the pursuit of happiness by proxy orgasm where sex becomes trophy revenge, provocation valued as much as pleasure.

Copious copulation and its accessorised indulgences are an ever present and prescient febrile topic of conversation and inevitable conflict. It becomes a worthless currency because the more any one character accrues it, the more its value is diminished, each character clutching at straws not knowing which one will finally break the camel’s back.

Part satirical allegory of contemporary sexual promiscuity – it’s set on the cusp of the millennium – part farce, we can comfortably ridicule the character’s memory-lite goldfish in a bowl mentality. They just never seem to learn – even less want to. Call it liberated venality in a moral vacuum. There’s many a laugh and some zinger one-liners, not least when the characters are oblivious to their self-deprecating irony. The language is strong, particularly the explicit online sex chat slang, the latter perversely witty for its ingenious acronyms and contractions.

Post interval Act Two over ran on this occasion by nearly thirty minutes. Even allowing for first night gremlins this is stretching the published and announced performance length somewhat. An expedient solution will be some judicious editing. Often it feels we are revisiting and retreading old ground and the terrain of their turgid relationships seems more like another minefield. A minor issue, but given the auditorium dynamic and action, characters sitting, lying or squatting, are often masked by the audience compromising audibility. Easily fixed.

Plot spoilers are near impossible, a tidy synopsis as likely as a game of squash with a jellyfish. Broken promises, broken hearts, the banality of deception and desperation for love and truth mark this play as an exceptional dissection of ordinary lives laid bare with visceral antipathy. This is an ‘in-house’ production by OJS Theatre and they are doing a sterling job deserving our patronage. If their ‘open casting’ policy draws from a well of acting talent enjoyed tonight – the future is very bright indeed.

Runs until 25 February 2017 | Image: Karl Steele

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