Mates in Chelsea – Royal Court, London

Reviewer: Serafina Cusack

Writer: Rory Mullarkey

Director: Sam Pritchard

There is nothing particularly radical about the middle classes jeering at the upper classes and playwright Rory Mullarkey, self-described ‘committed socialist’, shies away from the biting satirical potential of the concept. However, what is left shining in the rubble of the Viscount’s fortune is an exceptionally well-written, exceptionally well-acted, riotous comedy of manners.

Tug Bungay, played by Laurie Kynaston, views his Viscount status not just as a title but as his career and identity. He envisions spending the remainder of his life enjoying summers at his Northumberland Castle, and milling around Chelsea making lavish expenditures on apology flowers and seafood. However, when the disgraced Russian Oligarch Oleg Mikhailovich Govorov (Philipp Mogilnitskiy) proposes to acquire Tug’s cherished castle, Dimly Grange, Tug’s mother Aggrapina (Fenella Woolgar) sees it as an irresistible offer, especially since Tug’s extravagant lifestyle has nearly depleted the Coutts account.

While Tug vehemently opposes the idea, his fed-up fiancée Finty Crossbell (Natalie Dew) sees this as an opportunity for them to finally settle down together. Simultaneously, Tug’s best friend Charlton Thrupp (George Fouracres) hopes Tug can retain ownership of the castle, envisioning a promising and extended summer that might transform their relationship into something more profound than friendship. Conflicting motivations result in a farcical romp of mistaken identity and baked goods.

The star of the show is Fouracres as pining bestie Charlie. He is agile, always switched on and gives a side-splitting nuanced performance. Fouracres particularly shines in a monologue given at the beginning of the third act, where he proves that he is skilled not only at lampooning the landed gentry of South West London but also at giving a heartfelt and considered performance. The rest of the cast also give strong performances. Kynatson plays Tug as a pettish alcoholic who is delightfully impossible to root for and Dew as Finty embodies Veruca Salt in her foot-stomping self-assurance.

The design is also a character in itself. The Chelsea Flat, designed by Milla Clarke, is somehow both frighteningly realistic and caricatured. The design as a whole has a plastic sheen that serves as a reminder that this is not a real story with real characters worthy of sympathy. There is no room at any point to mistake what this production has to say about the idle rich in England.

Mullarkey’s script is odd and stilted in a way that constantly leaves the door ajar for absurdist or satirical intrusions. It is not often a writer is programmed who truly has a unique style, and it is clear within the context of Mullarkey’s previous plays at the Royal Court (Pity, The Wolf From The Door) that he has honed his craft. It is only a shame that the script is so de-fanged. The opportunity to stage a critique of the upper classes in a theatre in the heart of their home is an opportunity squandered a little here. As wealth disparity intensifies and modern politics are pushed further and further to the right, the satirical edge in this production reads more liberal than left and fails to have the impact it clearly yearns for.

Runs until 16 December 2023

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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