Thursday, May 28, 2009

Amongst Friends at Hampstead Theatre

Despite a reference or two to MPs expenses, April de Angelis’ new play feels rather like something that has been lingering in a desk draw since 1987. And perhaps it would have been better off being left there.

In Amongst Friends, Helen Baxendale plays Lara, a glamorous tabloid columnist who has recently developed agoraphobic tendencies. Her husband, Richard, is a former MP who has turned his hand to writing crime fiction but who soon hopes to be reinstated in a safe seat. Together they live in a glossy glass and exposed brick apartment, part of a gated community in a run down part of south London – a fortress-like complex complete with spas, bars and a flotation chamber.

For reasons that make very little sense other than to set up a source of conflict, they have invited their former neighbours over for a dinner party. Caitlin is a breast care nurse, who has written a book about her experiences, and her partner Joe is a drugs counsellor with aggression issues. They provide a reminder of the life Lara and Richard have left behind in their scramble up the social ladder and there is a sense of hostility between them from the start.

It is not long before their world is further punctured by the arrival of Shelley, a woman from the local council estate who attempts to milk them all for money on behalf of her recently deceased son Lee. She claims she is able to communicate with him psychically and that each of the four may well have known the boy in some capacity. Guilt buttons duly pushed, she helps herself to some of their champagne and waits for them to donate to her unfortunately acronymed charity, PENIS. It’s a con, of course, but it doesn’t really matter, nor does Shelley matter – her jarring working class presence is only required to act as a catalyst for the dredging up all kind of buried secrets among the four main characters. And what do you know? Love affairs and past liaisons are soon being confessed to at a rate of knots.

While Shelley, as a character, has all the nuance of a Vicki Pollard – hair scraped back into a pony tail, gold jewellery clinking round her neck and her g-string visible over the back of her too-tight white jeans – the others are not far behind in the stereotype stakes. Baxendale’s Lara is all elbows and teetering designer heels; Aden Gillett’s Richard is an oil slick of a man and Emma Cunniffe’s Caitlin is a hippy-drippy, soft-hearted type, though not above using her patients’ emotive stories to forward her own career. Only James Dreyfus’ cranky, difficult Joe seems a bit more interesting, a bit less of an obvious ‘type.’

None of them feel like real people, nor does their dialogue ever convince. They don’t talk so much as hurl words towards each other, speaking in would-be clever phrases that might pass muster on paper but sound clunky on the tongue. With a few notable exceptions, the jokes clang to the ground like cannon balls. Clang, clang, clang.

It’s not that the cast aren’t any cop but having been assigned such simultaneously flat yet nasty characters, they all seem to be going through the motions, hitting their cues, speaking their lines, but doing little more.

There is, of course, a lot to be said about social division, about the way people with the means often seal themselves off from the problems they don't want to handle, but this play, though it occasionally teeters on the brink of being interesting, wastes its time with dud jokes, implausible twists, and slightly offensive working class caricatures.

Reviewed for musicOMH. It gives me little pleasue to be so negative, but, yeesh, did anyone actually read this before they agreed to put it on stage?


chatterbox said...

I'm so glad someone who knows what they are talking about thought it was dreadful. I did wonder if I'd just missed something vital.

Interval Drinks said...

It was truly awful, one of the poorest plays I've seen in a long time - even so I'd question the whole 'knows what they are talking about' thing.

makingplans4nigel said...

so do I use my ticket for tomorrow night? the beloved refused to buy one for himself after Alphabetical Order last month.

Interval Drinks said...

I don't want to be unduly harsh, the performances may have bedded in a little since I saw it, but poor writing is the main problem and there's little that can be done to overcome that. Helen Baxendale's shoes are, however, rather awesome...

p_cox said...

I agree....I saw it with a friend and wished I'd never talked her into coming to the theatre with me!