Muswell Hill – February 2012

6/10

By Torben Betts

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 23rd February 2012

The set was very straightforward for this play – a kitchen. We sat in the front row, and the U-shaped work island was open on our side. Sink on the right, hob and oven on the left, plus all the paraphernalia for a dinner party. A netbook was open on the front right corner of the unit, and there were two stools on that side. A fridge stood in the corner to our right.

The play covered the new social processes of the Facebook generation, with frequent interruptions and conversational non sequiturs as emails, texts and people arrived at the flat for a dinner party. Mat (it’s short for Matthew, but not the typical abbreviation) and Jess are in the process of breaking up, but their inability to connect with each other is getting in the way. Also getting in the way are their several guests; Karen, a friend of Jess whose own husband Julian committed suicide several years ago, Simon, a friend of Mat’s from university days who has an attitude problem, Annie, Jess’s sister by adoption who has  great looks and a needy personality but no discernible talent, and Tony, Annie’s ‘fiancé’, a much older man who teaches at the drama school Annie’s hoping to get into.

The action all takes place over the one evening, with short scenes in the kitchen giving us the story. Mat has heard from a social networking friend that Jess has been having an affair, and challenges her about this just before the guests start arriving – bad timing or what? There was no inkling of this revelation beforehand so it could seem a little odd, but with the communication problems of this group of people, somehow it worked. I found myself thinking that they might have done better to text each other even though they were in the same room, as they paid more attention to electronic conversations than to what the other person was saying.

The first guest to arrive is Karen, who’s still getting over the loss of her husband Julian, an incredibly selfish, opinionated boor from the sound of him. She tells plenty of stories about what he used to do, and it’s clear that she’s still a bit lost without him. She’s also a non-drinking vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, so the dinner menu of prawn avocado and monkfish stew is off to a bad start.

Simon, the second to arrive, is one of those left-wing, belligerent, contemptuous types who have difficulty making friends because they’re always bitching about something. His initial unpleasantness puts Karen off, and the way he takes the photo of Jess and Annie off the fridge door and puts it in his pocket is decidedly creepy. He fancies Annie based solely on her photo, but once he meets the real thing he changes tack and starts chatting up Karen instead. She warms to Simon as the evening progresses and she starts on the booze again; she needs someone with his strong opinions and apparent dedication to helping others, and even comments herself later on that he’s almost exactly like Julian.

Annie is indeed a looker, but as Mat has already informed us she’s got very low self-esteem. She was adopted by Jess’s parents, having come from a very difficult background, and now she’s quit her job and taken up with Tony, a man old enough to be her grandfather, because he may be able to help her get into drama school. It comes as quite a shock to Jess to find out that her sister is engaged – Annie forgot to mention that fact before – and that Tony is also coming to the dinner party. Good job there’s a spare prawn avocado and plenty of monkfish stew!

Tony calls himself a director, but how much actual directing he does is anybody’s guess. He just can’t help taking advantage of all the lovely young things who attend his classes wanting fame and fortune and expecting him to get it for them. Unfortunately his wife has found out about this affair with Annie through reading his text messages and has thrown him out. He’s another emotional wreck, trying desperately to get back with his wife, aghast at Annie’s excessive clinginess, competing unsuccessfully with Simon for Karen’s attention and even trying to seduce Jess. Any port in a storm.

The scene where Annie introduced Tony to Jess was wonderful. He stood there, still in his coat and carrying a bottle wrapped in black tissue paper, looking uncertain of his welcome, while Annie gushed about their wonderful relationship and her future career as an actress and singer, and Jess just stood there, holding the platter with bread on it, completely stunned by what she saw. It was very funny, and made us very aware of the massive number of assumptions Annie was making and which Tony hadn’t yet had the heart to challenge. Well, the sex was great, so why bother?

Annie’s demonstration of her acting and singing abilities (I use the word loosely) was another horrifyingly funny moment. She did at least know Cleopatra’s lines from Shakespeare’s play and she was bossy enough with her supporting cast to be believable as a demanding queen, but her style of delivery was atrocious, even from behind. Her singing style appeared to be modelled on the worst excesses of the reality casting shows (we don’t watch them, so I’m guessing a bit here) and her nasal tones grated really badly with me. I’m confident that Tala Gouveia, who played Annie, is very talented to be so good at playing someone who isn’t.

There were plenty of entertaining moments like that throughout the play, and the cast brought the characters to life so well that at times I felt like I was suffering through a real dinner party. Despite this, I didn’t leave early, as I would probably have done in real life, so I did get a chance to enjoy the disintegration of most of these characters’ lives, and see the little bud of hope that was the emerging connection between Simon and Karen. The only down side is that when such unpleasant or boring people are being shown so realistically, the play itself can suffer from the lack of interest on the stage; this production wasn’t too bad, but it did drag a little during the early stages. Still it did pick up as things went from bad to worse, so it was quite a good afternoon in the end.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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