Well we didn’t stray far from the manor this weekend, the Kings Head on Friday night and the Almeida on Saturday, both just a hop, skip and a jump from home. A swift vodka and tonic in the Almeida's Frank Lloyd Wright-esque bar and then we took up our bargain £8 restricted view seats in row F of the stalls. Don't tell anyone else but these really are one of the best kept secrets in London's theatre world and are our second home just off Upper Street.
Firstly the set. The Almeida always gives good set and designer Robert Innes Hopkins exceeds even the wildest expectations this time round. A stylish Holland Park apartment is transformed into a Dorset terrace replete with an actual swimming pool in which a naked blonde with newly darkened roots splashes defiantly, whilst the second act finds us in the kitchen of a well appointed family house in Camberwell.
Matthew Dunster’s play follows the fortunes of Michael and Gordon, both northerners and friends from drama school, whose careers have taken wildly diverging paths. Michael is now the host of a prime time TV game show, is rich beyond his wildest dreams and onto his second wife, Louisa. Gordon’s acting career started off promisingly but has now stalled and he is reduced to tending neighbour’s gardens for pocket money. Gordon is married to his long time partner Sally, also an actress on her uppers, and they have an annoying brat of a daughter Effie who, by dint of being young, beautiful and spoilt, is used to getting her own way.
Gordon, Sally, Effie and her boyfriend Castro arrive at Michael and Louisa’s smart flat and Gordon begs Michael for money to pay off his debts and to start a landscape gardening business. Gordon willingly agrees but over the course of the next two hours/two years things go from bad to worse as we follow the ups and downs of six symbiotic damaged lives. Long-held jealousies and slights rear their ugly heads and relationships flounder under the weight of festering resentments and mistrust.
It would be an understatement to say that the majority of the characters in this discourse on the nature of fame, friendship, success and power are not very nice people. Only Sally Rogers’ Sally reaches the end of the second act with her dignity intact, the remainder are all selfish to varying degrees, reaching the pinnacle or nadir, depending on which way you look at it, in Emily Berrington’s uber-brat Effie. Even John MacMilan’s worthy documentary film-maker, Castro, desperate to expose the corporate greed of the major oil companies, which he does to mind numbing effect in a second act speech-cum-lecture, withers in the face of a milf.
The entire evening is car-crash captivating as dreams turn to nightmares and the men in particular are crushed and emasculated by the drama’s close. Darrell D’Silva’s portrayal of the successful TV star supposedly unbothered by fame and fortune, but newly self-educated on the merits of fine sherry and whisky, contrasts sharply with that of Trevor Fox’s bitter family man, resentful of his friend’s success, yet not too proud to greedily ask for handouts to improve his social standing.
Both Beth Cordingly and Sally Rogers as the long-suffering wives convey a sense of weary patience with husbands who are not all they dreamed they’d be and who are grudgingly tolerated rather than adored. Emily Berrington, still at drama school and making her stage debut, is terrific as the monstrous Effie, exploiting her sexuality to her own ends, inappropriately disrobing in front of her father and god-father to elicit a reaction and using her own progeny to further her burgeoning celebrity driven fashion career.
Tables are turned by the end of the evening and women are applauded as the stronger sex, while the men, blinkered in their pursuit of money and sex, find their lives have crumbled.
Matthew Dunster has written a painful yet engrossing play which reflects many of the obsessions of the 21st century and says much about the differing aspirations of the sexes and generations. I could have done without the “big business is bad” soap box moments which felt laboured and held up the action, but which may well mirror the concerns of the young chattering classes. There is also a wonderful line about the fact that in the brave new on-line world no-one pays writers any more.
Booking until 30 June 2012, "never a lender or a borrower be". Painfully engrossing - Children's Children