Writer: Torben Betts
Director: Ellie Jones
Sometimes you have to admit you’re wrong. When I first read the premise of this play – ‘Middle class couple downsize from London to live in the north among real people’ a whole cacophony of alarm bells started ringing. Here was a play that was going to tick every clichéd comedy box for an audience that had probably never travelled that far north of Watford let alone lived there. I studiously avoided seeing its opening run at the Orange Tree, and would probably not have seen it now had it not been for the chance to review it. Now that I have seen it, I can see what the fuss was about.
There is far more depth and subtlety to the characters and their situations than the premise suggests. Oliver and Emily, the relocating couple, are seemingly tea total and Emily, at least, is up with all the latest social concerns and right-on political issues, ever ready to speak out about the state of the nation. Their neighbours, Alan and Dawn, are, of course, the polar opposites, northerners who drink lager from the can, are proud to be British and unquestioning about what that means. The first act sees couples and cultures collide as Emily invites them over, carefully positioning her Karl Marx biography where they will see it, only for Alan to inevitably confess that he prefers Laurel and Hardy, and Emily to launch into a discourse about comedy as a means of securing the acquiescene of the masses. From there we get art, education and competitive sport as topics of conversation that are never going to lead to bonding between the foursome.
It works because each of the characters are very well drawn and written with an understanding of how to make everyday conversation and earnest discussion amusing while still being believable. The standout characters are Emily and Alan. Both are the sort of people audiences love to see on a stage but hate to have as neighbours. Emily’s views on the problems of capitalist society and the decline of political debate are hard to disagree with, and it’s easy to sympathise with her beliefs and frustrations while at the same time understanding just why others don’t want to keep listening to her. Laura Howard captures the essence of the character to perfection.
Alan is that rare creature, someone who knows he talks too much, and knows he is boring the people he’s talking to, and yet remains anything but boring to watch. Daniel Copeland plays the part with relish, embracing the values and background of the character, and never straying into caricature mould. Oliver, played by Darren Strange, is the perfect foil to Emily, indulging her whims while repressing his own desires, and Samantha Seager as Dawn, copes with the over exuberance of Alan while also knowing that she should maybe have tried to get more from life.
Entertaining as the first half of the play is, the second half would be a letdown if it just repeated the formula. Thankfully the focus shifts more to the individual couples rather than the differences between them, and, as well as providing some great comedy, it adds a much needed poignancy to the proceedings. It is this that ultimately elevates it way beyond anything the original premise suggests is likely to be on offer.
The play has humour and politics and a convincing set of characters and situations played out to great effect. I’m glad I overcame my initial impressions and went to see it.
Runs until 9 August 2014