Gielgud Theatre, London W1
Opened 25 March, 2008

Yasmina Reza’s comedies of middle-class manners show how little it takes to strip us of our proprieties and set us lunging for each other’s throats; the title of this play is probably her most explicit statement yet of this view. We depend on artifice to keep things functioning. The truth of this was demonstrated halfway through press night, when a local electricity brownout resulted in a hiatus before the show eventually went on under still-functioning house lights and stage “workers”. Indeed, for a minute or two we were unsure whether a programmed lighting cue had been mis-triggered, or even whether it was an exceptionally stark but planned effect.
The latter, though, would be out of character both for a play by Reza and a production by her now-standard London team: director Matthew Warchus, designer Mark Thompson, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone and composer Gary Yershon have been responsible for the London productions of four of her five plays seen here, and all five have been translated by Christopher Hampton. I found myself seated between well-known faces from two of the several West End casts of Reza’s breakthrough play Art, and the curtain rose on what might have been the fashionable apartment set for Art redone in angry crimson instead of white and off-white.
The apartment is that of Michel and Véronique, whose son has been beaten up by the eleven-year-old offspring of Alain and Annette. The parents have gathered to discuss a formal acknowledgement of and response to the incident. But in the course of 95 minutes (electricity permitting), Janet McTeer’s Véronique becomes ever more sanctimonious; Ken Stott’s Michel rapidly loses his veneer of liberal decorum, declaring “I am fundamentally uncouth”; Ralph Fiennes’s Alain, a corporate lawyer, alternates repeated calls on his mobile phone about a leak regarding a pharma-business client with a display of cold-hearted social Darwinism; and Tamsin Greig as Annette engages increasingly in her speciality of behaving like a comically high-strung teenager, including one of the most impressive stage vomits I have ever seen.
The conversation quickly loses sight of its ostensible purpose to range across all their respective personalities, professions, marriages and philosophies, helpfully fuelled by a bottle of rum. It looks for a while as if medical matters will predominate, with discussion of the young victim’s corrective dental treatment and the revelation that Michel’s mother has just been prescribed the drug whose leaked side-effects Alain is trying to hush up. However, the details are never brought together; like the enormous canvas which dominates upstage, this is broad abstract impressionism rather than specific representation. No conclusions are reached, but along the way McTeer beats up Stott and turns out Greig’s handbag; Greig, in turn, out-Morrisseys Morrissey with a vaseful of tulips and terminates one of Fiennes’s phone calls with extreme prejudice.
Like Art, this is an ensemble piece with some bravura solos (although Greig can steal a scene simply by standing in the background retching); like Art, it could become a long-running success with astute marketing of cast changes; and, like Art, it behaves as if it were more profound than it is. When Véronique and Alain bring Darfur and the Congo into the debate, the effect is not simply to lampoon these people’s inflated sense of their own tribulations, but also to trivialise those enormities. Perhaps the canniest achievement of all is for Reza to have written portrayals of social discomfort that we can watch as part of the comfortable ritual of theatregoing, and for producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers to sell these lifestyle satires as lifestyle accessories.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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