By Nick Payne
Directed by John Crowley
Venue: Donmar Theatre
Date: Thursday 12th September 2013
I’m not sure how well the sponsored front row initiative is succeeding at the Donmar. The idea of having front row seats released two weeks before a show seems like a great way to get new people into the theatre at an affordable price, but looking at the occupants of the front row today, I’m not sure it’s having the desired effect. The average age was around 55 to 60, and they mostly looked like regular theatregoers to me. Of course, the matinee audience may have a different profile to evening performances, and no doubt there will be some statistics published eventually puffing what a great success the scheme has been, but for those of us who’ve supported the theatre for many years, it’s still a bit galling to find the best seats not available for advance booking and yet possibly not going to those for whom the scheme was intended. Ah well.
This was one of the better bits of new writing we’ve seen recently. Set in a typical office, the play explores the compensation culture so prevalent nowadays, and shows us how and why so many people get sucked into the vortex of deceit which it promotes. Two personal injury lawyers, Barry and Andrew, are visited by one of Andrew’s old school chums, Kevin. Kevin wants to make a claim against a Tesco delivery driver for an accident he’s just had, and wants to put the work Andrew’s way on a no win, no fee basis. Barry is reluctant to take the case on, and later we learn that Kevin is indeed making a false claim, so what will Andrew do?
He jumped in with both feet, of course. We learned later that his father was ill, implying that Andrew needed money to pay for medical bills or care of some sort, but this was never made explicit. Most of the people involved in the scam had some kind of hardship to justify their involvement, although Kevin just looked like a chancer to me. Barry was the only one who wasn’t fully participating, although he managed to overcome his scruples when one of their claims actually went to court.
The planning session for their first accident was very entertaining, despite being held in almost total darkness. It began with a lovely joke about an old lady and a bank manager’s testicles, and we were just about to get the punchline when Andrew came bursting in with a torch, apologising for the power outage. We never got to hear the end of the joke, but I asked the staff on the way out and they filled me in.
The extras in the planning scene morphed into the legal team for the trial scenes in the second half. Apart from a bit of blocking, which was unavoidable given the layout of the courtroom, the trial was both informative and entertaining, and as a former Scots Law student I particularly liked the (Scottish) judge’s little reference to McGhee v National Coal Board. I felt the closing scene was a little weak, but given the relationship between Andrew and Kevin’s wife, Jen, it was necessary to tie up that loose end before the play finished.
The set for the first half was a very convincing office layout, with a door back left, lots of filing cabinets, charts, photocopier, a coat rack, pot plants, etc. The two desks were front left and right, and there was a fan on Andrew’s desk which had a very laid back attitude to working. There was also an exit far right, hidden by a screen, which led to the tea-making facilities. One of the running jokes was the weird and wonderful selection of flavoured teas which Barry kept offering their clients.
For the second half, the office was stripped bare and the court was set up in front of a screening panel at the back. The lawyers’ desks were ranged along the front of the stage while the judge sat centre back with the royal crest above his chair. The witnesses sat back right while the court reporter was to the left of the judge. The final scenes took place in the still-cleared office, when Barry and Andrew were packing up their stuff.
We had many good laughs during this play, and while nothing was surprising or shocking, it did show how easy it was to take the view that everyone else is cheating so why shouldn’t I? It’s understandably tempting when money is so tight and the activities of the banking fraternity seem to be not that different from the kind of scam Kevin and his mates were doing. The performances were all superb, and we’d happily see another play by this writer.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me