Valued Friends – Rose Theatre, Kingston

Writer: Stephen Jeffreys

Director: Michael Fentiman

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

We hear a great deal today about the difficulties that young people face in getting a foothold on the property ladder, which makes it easy to forget that, only 30 years ago, during the era of the Margaret Thatcher Government, home ownership was almost mandatory and the property ladder could often turn out to be a fast-moving escalator. Stephen Jeffreys’ comedy/drama, first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 1989, centres on four friends just gaining that now elusive foothold,

By June 1984, 30-somethings Sherry, Howard, Marion and Paul have completed a decade sharing a rented basement flat in a run-down converted mansion in London’s Earl’s Court. When a property developer wants to take over their building, they face a range of choices which could take them on a road to riches at a time when “greed is good” was an oft used mantra, but at what cost to their friendships?

Natalie Casey’s chaotic Sherry is the play’s fun character. She is a wannabe comedienne with no regular income and no instinct for dealing with money. The rest of the quartet are rather a dull bunch in Michael Fentiman’s production. Howard (Michael Marcus) is a geeky lecturer and writer with strong Socialist leanings; Marion (Catrin Stewart) works in computers and likes to be the one who pulls all the strings, taking to capitalist wheeler-dealing like a duck to water; Paul (Sam Frenchum), is a freelance music radio presenter and Marion’s on-off boyfriend, who develops a passion for DIY home renovations, perhaps making him one of the original gentrifiers.

Their lives are changed by the arrival of the ruthless developer Scott (Ralph Davis) who starts making offers that can’t be refused. The play has a keen grasp on what happens when a living space turns into a valuable asset – the strains on friendships, romantic relationships and political principles – but it tends to become a little dry, particularly in the second act and Jeffrey’s seems to recognise this by introducing the comic figure of the philosophising labourer Stewart, played exuberantly by Nicolas Tennant.

Michael Taylor’s set designs for a revolving stage suggest that this production could have been better if seen in the round. Fentiman throws in flashing lights and loud music of the era (and earlier) between scenes, but such effects are not really consistent with the body of the play. However, the biggest problem with his revival is that several of the characters do not come across strongly enough to make us care about them.

As a reflection on the way we were, Valued Friends is interesting more than involving. In a sense, the piece is introspective, representing a decade looking critically at itself. Seen in 2019, it cries out for stronger links that would connect it to modern dilemmas and lifestyles; without them, it feels as if time has devalued the play’s relevance.

Runs until 12 October 2019 | Image: Pamela Raith

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