Review – God of Carnage, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th October 2012

God of CarnageYasmina Reza’s characters enjoy a good argument, don’t they? In Art (admittedly the only other Reza play I’ve seen) friendships get destroyed over the purchase of a painting. In God of Carnage two couples meet to discuss a fight their sons had, that resulted in one of them losing a couple of teeth. Unlike in the first play, these people have never met before so don’t have established friendships at risk; however, by the end of the play any pretence at middle-class politeness and structured problem solving has gone right out of the window.

Alan and Annette are at a disadvantage though; not only is it their son, Ferdinand, who has committed the alleged attack, they are at the “away ground” that is Bruno’s parents’ (Veronica and Michael) living room. Veronica is in charge of negotiations – Michael is obviously just there for back-up – and Alan (a pharmaceutical company lawyer) is playing a subtle defensive bat looking to disallow inappropriate words and assumptions. Annette is the soul of politeness and impeccable behaviour until she has an unfortunate attack of nausea – with explosive results. It’s the kind of nightmare event that, unless you were with good friends, would be absolutely impossible to overcome and your relationship – whatever it was – could never be the same again. While Veronica and Michael are clearing up the mess, Alan overhears them laughing at their guests’ awfulness – and that’s the cue for the arguments really to begin.

Michael and VeronicaIf you’ve read some of my other theatre reviews, gentle reader, you will know that I tend to question productions that don’t have an interval. I love an interval. It’s a chance to reflect over what you’ve seen in the first half and consider what might happen in the second half; on a practical level it’s the opportunity to stretch your legs, nip to the loo, have a drink or an ice-cream and indeed wake yourself up if the first half has been dull. It’s also an opportunity for the theatre to make some money from bar sales – don’t knock it, they need to raise revenue for the good of us all. So if there’s no interval – as in this case – I ask myself why. If it’s a good reason artistically – as in the recent Bully Boy – then so be it. If there’s no particular reason apart from wanting to go home fifteen minutes earlier – as in the Menier’s revival of Educating Rita – then it’s very annoying. There’s no doubt in my mind that God of Carnage could not sustain an interval – but that’s because at 90 minutes duration it is, in my mind, about 30 minutes too long and would be much better off as a classic one act play, ideally to be shown together with another one act play either side of an interval.

Annette and AlanI felt that once the initial scenario is played out – polite discussions of children’s delinquency which gets overtaken by the parents’ falling out over it – there really wasn’t very much further that the play could go. Yes, the characters are revealed as more selfish, bigoted and generally unpleasant than you might have thought them at the beginning, but I didn’t feel they were sufficiently developed so as to give you a greater insight into the human condition. There is a sense of a sex war going on, as the men find a certain understanding between them over a glass of excellent rum, whilst the women, descending into drunkenness and abandon, commit acts of violence and destruction on the men. As Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, these sequences are funny in themselves but would not have been so had the acts been committed by the men on the women. As a study of a polite group of people turning against themselves because of underlying bigotry, this is no Clybourne Park; and as a study of hosts turning on their guests to mask their own unhappy relationship this is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the play; it was fine; I just wasn’t challenged by it in the way I’d hoped.

Technically it’s a very good production. We both admired the set’s back wall of individual tulips, like a vertical garden, cleverly lit so that it looks as though they are either leaning inwards either in support of each other or sparring with each other. The change to red lighting gave an eerie sense of blood, which was quite alarming. Otherwise it’s a simple, narrow set, with a floor sloping down towards the audience, giving you a slightly uncomfortable sense of imbalance, visually underlining the claustrophobia and the inevitability of things (handbag contents, vomit, for example) toppling down towards you. There’s also no doubt that the play’s coup-de-theatre, the nausea attack, was achieved brilliantly believably and with delightful messiness.

Sian ReevesThe four characters are all very well acted by the highly talented cast. Sian Reeves as Veronica is perfect as the super-polite hostess with the hidden agenda of coercing her guests into accepting full responsibility for the “disfigurement” to her child. She does a very nice line in smugness about her writing achievements and goes scarily maniacal as she is let down by her husband later on. It’s a very funny performance.

James DohertyAs her more down to earth husband Michael, James Doherty has an excellent set piece early on when he talks about hamstergate, and his inability to understand why no one agrees with him on this is very funny. He absolutely gets that sense of rivalry with his more educated foe Alan, and when he becomes simply angry at all the shenanigans his portrayal of that anger is very clear, straightforward and believable.

Simon WilsonSimon Wilson’s Alan, enthralled to his Blackberry, is a very credible ruthless lawyer who requires that the world bow down to his requirements. He has a superb inscrutable look and you can just imagine that he has workplace bullying down to a fine art. When Annette takes his communication lifeline away he is completely lost and powerless – all that’s left is his husk. You’d feel sorry for him if the arrogant wretch didn’t deserve it so much.

Melanie GutteridgeAnd Melanie Gutteridge as Annette lives and breathes every moment of the play – her social dilemmas of when and what to say whilst they’re all being polite; suffering the embarrassment of vomiting everywhere; beginning to stand up to her hosts as they accuse her son unfairly; taking revenge on her husband; and finally trying to find a way forward out of the mess. She’s superb. On the night we went, she was still brushing away real tears during curtain call.

All in all some very good elements make up an entertaining evening, but for me the play was a bit disappointing; too long for a one-acter and lacking a decent denouement, but with four very committed performances.

Review – Benefactors, Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield, 17th March 2012

BenefactorsAn ambitious young architect has a great vision for social housing in some decaying corner of SE15, something that will provide decent accommodation whilst enhancing community spirit. His kindly wife keeps open house for their needy neighbours, whilst doing his admin and looking after the kids. The two guys were obviously at college together and the other chap has gone into journalism, whilst his wife, a sometime nurse, has gone into some form of depression.

Simon WilsonBut all is not as it seems. The friendships and marriages are fragile. Petty jealousies and rivalries come to the fore; and roles and values change. As the reality of dealing with planners, builders, utilities and so on gets progressively harder, the great vision for social housing becomes a little eroded. Compromises are made. Low rises become high rises. High rises become very high rises. Decent community housing becomes a mere tool for getting a job done; and something breaks between the four of them. I won’t tell you more of the plot because it’s an intriguing comedy and as it develops, the characters become more honest and the true nature of their relationships gets revealed.

Andrew WoodallSimon Wilson plays architect David, and his journey from noble visionary to cynic is very credibly done. It’s a solid central role, a character who sometimes can’t see the blindingly obvious, and his internal battles of self-confidence versus growing defeatism are nicely judged. His old friend and later rival Colin is played by Andrew Woodall, whose apparent reverse journey of cynic to visionary is also very well portrayed. His deflated disappointment with a life, a job and a wife none of which he rates particularly highly, all contribute to his being rather a nasty piece of work, and he carries it off well.

Abigail CruttendenHowever, I enjoyed the performances of the two women rather more. David’s wife Jane is played by Abigail Cruttenden, bringing out all the comic nuances of being nice as pie to Colin and his wife Sheila whilst actually finding the open house situation drives her mad, really disliking Colin and being frustrated with Sheila. When Colin manipulates her in the second act to a position of working against her husband, her distaste for what she is doing is both sad and funny, and her enthusiasm for how her role subsequently develops is also very amusingly done.

Rebecca LaceyAt first you think Rebecca Lacey’s Sheila is going to be a mousey mute but her journey of self-development is extremely well portrayed. When the mouse eventually roars it’s a very telling moment. With something of the 1970s Prunella Scales about her, during the course of the play step by step she pieces back together again something of a new life, courtesy of her benefactors. It’s another excellent performance.

The creatively flexible space that is the Crucible Studio is given over to a simple kitchen set, with just a few kitchen implements and bits of crockery and a functional kitchen table big enough to feed the neighbours and to spread out architectural drawings. It’s a straightforward set for a straightforward production that lets the text do the talking, and weaves an entertaining tale of what happens when you are practised at being good to others. It’s a very cleverly constructed play – I liked how it’s Jane who takes the confessional role in the first act and David who assumes that role in the second. But I still feel that the play’s vision is a little cramped – perhaps I was comparing it too much with the broad brush of “Democracy” that we saw earlier that day – and whilst it’s a good play, I don’t think it’s a great play. However, Mrs C enjoyed it somewhat more than I did and feels the characters’ journeys are very provocatively portrayed and that it says a lot about the nature of relationships and idealism versus reality. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who is right!