"Imagine a Prime Minister called John Major; imagine Robson and Jerome at the top of the charts," says protagonist Rosie Delaware in her prologue, making it plain that Tony Bicât's black comedy A Buyer's Market is set in 1995. Why, though, I wonder?
All the so-near-yet-so-far protestations seem overdone. It can't be that the London property market is less buoyant now than then: the Thames-side penthouse apartment whose sale Rosie is handling would fetch at least half as much again now as its £1 million asking price in the play. Nor, surely, that criminal "entrepreneurs" in the former Soviet Union, such as the absurdly pseudonymous "P.G. Wodehouse" who offers to pay a caseful of cash for the flat, have since been brought under control; they simply aren't as big news any more, they've become part of the fabric. The same goes for the strife in areas such as Chechnya, the homeland (though never named) to which "Wodehouse"'s abused minion "Ernest Hemingway" longs to return to do his bit for the struggle against the Russians. And we may have tucked away a certain self-regarding airport novelist with Tory connections, but we are surely under no illusions about the inevitability of his return as unscathed as the flat's vendor Axel Vincent, husband of a potential parliamentary high-flyer.
Possibly Bicât is saying plus ça change, pretending that these events take place in a different world; possibly the play had just been lying around his study for a few years before being unveiled as the latest presentation in the Bush's 30th anniversary season. And in any case, there's no real profundity nestling beneath the surface of this black comedy, at least nothing deeper than a recurring motif of the naïve Brits romanticising stories from a reality uglier and messier than they have ever had to confront.
Matthew Marsh as "Wodehouse" combines an urbane assurance with a candid unpleasantness which increasingly gains the upper hand; the oily smugness of Anthony Calf's Axel Vincent is no match for him, especially after the umpteenth mushroom vodka. The plot is straightforward – funny money, shady dealings and a suspiciously person-sized wooden crate – and serves as a mere pretext for the dynamics between the four characters. It's all jolly enough in Gemma Bodinetz's production, but after Peter Morris's impressive calling card The Age Of Consent and Richard Cameron's wonderful The Glee Club (which has secured a deserved West End transfer), it feels a little as if the Bush's big season is marking time for the moment.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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