We wrapped up our bumper Chichester day on Saturday with a visit to the Minerva Theatre and the second preview of Deborah Frances-White’s new play Never Have I Ever. You know that drinking game? … Or perhaps, my more salubrious readers, you don’t. The idea is that you say Never Have I Ever and you pick an activity that you haven’t done, but anyone who has done it takes a drink. And then it’s the next person’s turn, and so on and so on, ad ebrietatem. As you can guess, it’s probably not a game you should play if you’re not 100% confident in your fellow players.
Tobin has invested money – a lot of money – in Kas and Jacq’s restaurant. Nearly two years in, Kas and Jacq have admitted defeat and are pulling the plug on the business. They’ve invited Tobin and his wife Adaego around for dinner in the restaurant to break the news that he’s lost all his cash. However, Tobin is made of money; will he be furious, or will he take it in his stride? And what happens when they take to the bottles and start playing Never Have I Ever? It’s not going to end happily, is it? “It’s just like Indecent Exposure“, more than one of my theatregoing companions said to each other.
It’s a terrific starting point for a play and Ms Frances-White has created four very dynamic characters to place at loggerheads with each other. The four were all friends from university although Tobin was by far the oldest and was working in France whilst the others were still studying and – by the sound of it – drinking heavily. The play is also, at times, extremely funny with some stand-out comedy lines which you might expect, given the writer’s experiences as a stand-up comic.
However, the play tries to take so many themes and deal with so many problems that it doesn’t really succeed in reaching any conclusions about any of them. Loyalty, trust, power, exploitation, forgiveness, privilege and revenge all play a part in this story, so it gets very intense, and as a result, sometimes the writing becomes heavy-handed and unsubtle. There are also a lot of quick scene changes designed to suggest the inevitable worsening of behaviour and increased outrageousness that a night on the vino brings – but they create an odd, stop-start sort of atmosphere, preventing the natural flow of the storytelling and character development.
Frankie Bradshaw’s set is the epitome of East London restaurant chic, each table fitted out with its own cooking range – that was the restaurant’s USP – an individual chef per table, no wonder it didn’t make money. Separating the stage floor from the theatre floor are hundreds of wine bottles, stacked around like the most enticing cellar ever, assisted by some terrific mood lighting courtesy of Ryan Day’s lighting design, which also flashes, every so often, into some very groovy, hallucinatory effects during scene changes.
All four performances are superb. Greg Wise is brilliant as Tobin, all avuncular bluster, bonhomie and woke-and-proud-of-it; until he discovers some news that he’d preferred to have not to known and then the change in his character becomes darkly sinister. Susan Wokoma’s Adaego is super-confident, comfortable in her skin, pushing the way forward for other women of colour. Alex Roach’s Jacq is rather cynical, working through anger management issues and prepared to think outside the box. Amit Shah plays Kas as unassuming, practical and placatory – but only to an extent; he, too, has a massive secret to get off his chest. The four work together tremendously well to get the best out of the outlandish predicament that Ms Frances-White has created for them, and deliver those great lines with terrific comic panache.
I came away from the play wishing it had been written in a slightly subtler way. It certainly doesn’t shy away from some serious moral issues, but it does come down heavily on one side of the argument/predicament, whereas in real life I think there are more shades of grey going on here than the writing suggests. The person who has two reasons to be angry and consider themselves the wronged party is the person who becomes the baddie; it reminded me of Shylock, seeking punishment greater than the crime merits. It’s a play with loads to think about and plenty to laugh at, but it does get pretty hectic at times. To reiterate, the performance we saw was a preview but I doubt it has changed much over the last three days.
Production photos by Helen Murray