Writer: Torben Betts
Director: Christopher Harper
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
“There is no such thing as society,” declared Margaret Thatcher in 1987. Twenty-five years later and the current Conservative Government is all about celebrating the ‘Big Society’. The country is in a party mood, The Diamond Jubilee, The Olympic Games and The European Cup are stirring up flag-waving, patriotic fervour in the nation. But dark clouds are looming and austerity and recession are hovering over the heads of previously well-to-do London 30-somethings.
Emily and Oliver (she a politically astute artist, he a redundant Ministry of Defence civil servant) have upped sticks from London to a more down to earth, and cheaper, house in an unnamed northern town. In an echo of Abigail’s Party, the couple invites their new neighbours around for a get-together, only to end up driving the North /South divide even deeper. Dental receptionist Dawn, born and bred in the same street and her football fanatic postman husband, Alan, are the ‘real’ people Emily is determined to live among, though the pair proves to be a bit too real for her liking.
As Emily’s overbearing sense of self-righteousness and moral one-upmanship threatens to destroy the gathering even before its got going, it’s left to peacemaker Oliver to try to still the waters. As the play unfolds, however, it is clear that while the couples have unreconcilable differences, they’re perhaps more akin to each other than either faction would care to admit.
Betts’ script has echoes of Alan Ayckbourn, his early career mentor, as well as the aforementioned Mike Leigh play, but there’s more political messaging here than in either of these other works. But ultimately Betts’ script lacks the subtlety of his fellow writers. The individualsare painted with thick brush strokes, leading to stereotypes rather than fully-formed characters, the kind one would expect in a 1970s Carry On film rather than a modern comedy. Poking fun at London Liberals and northern oafs may illicit laughs but it smacks of somewhat lazy writing.
The cast does well with the material, however, delivering plenty of comic gold from these off-the-shelf characters. Alastair Whatley’s Oliver is suitably wet to convince as a card-carrying New Labour convert. Unable to stand up to his overbearing partner (marriage is just one concept that Emily sees as too conventional), his darker side slowly starts to unravel. Emily Bowker’s Emily is perhaps the most unlikeable character of the quartet but even so delivers a performance that gives a glimpse into her fractured world.
As their northern counterparts, Kerry Bennett and Graeme Brookes have the strongest material to work with, even if that material is somewhat two-dimensional. The pair also benefits from the wider emotional journey they follow, with both Bennett and Brookes turning in touching performances as the play darkens.
Director Christopher Harper makes effective use of Victoria Speechley’s well-conceived set, keeping the pace fast between the short scenes though that pace does occasionally mean we lose further insight into character.
It’s an interesting piece, entertainingly played, that provides plenty of laughs but the overwhelming feeling is Betts is trying to cram too many threads into the short acts, where more reward would come from less but deeper examination. We’ll laugh on the way out but do we really learn anything about this unlikeable quartet and the defining moments in their lives? Not really. We await some plot twist that perhaps challenges the social norms but that twist never materialises. In the end, the feeling is we’ve just watched an updated version of Barbara and Margo culture clashing in The Good Life.
An evening that will provide plenty of laughs but a piece that, just a couple of years after its premiere, is already dated.
Runs until 2 April2016 and then tours | Image: Jack Ladenburg