Disagreements, pointless arguments and conversations that never conclude are rife in this re-write of Michael Frayn’s 1993 play. Here is warm play with many laughs effectively framing the agony that is a modern relationship and where the simplicity and heart-wrenching truth of the subject matter rang true for many an audience member.
Frayn is doing very well at the moment with tickets to the revival of perhaps his best known play Noises Off still selling like metaphorical hot cakes at the Old Vic. Here is a very different play but with a lot of the same wit and intrigue. He offers up petty arguments, stunning scene-stopping monologues and a comfortable set to create a well rounded and charmingly rich evening. It tells the story of a couple, Cath and Phil, (played by the doe-eyed Zawe Ashton and the cheeky Alex Beckett) as they locate, settle into and subsequently move out of their first studio flat as a couple. The four scenes follow their trials and tribulations as they come to terms with each other’s inescapable character flaws, from Cath’s inability to actually say what she means and Phil’s inability to not say what he means, however complicated, inane and endless his strain of thought. The one-sided conversations between the couple, where Phil offers his words of wisdom in his ominously unique way, generate some of the bigger laughs from the audience. He is often found pondering the possibility of a sort of alternate dimension where things that have happened didn’t happen or choices that were made weren’t made, a corkscrew of thoughts that would drive any mate mental, but Cath handles well. For example, he ponders if they had taken a different street to walk down whilst flat hunting or whether he may have met someone else before or instead of Cath and be looking around the flat with another woman... not what any woman wants to hear when making a big decision to move in with the man she loves.
Their charmingly truthful relationship jitters are gloriously framed by interruptions from Alison Steadman’s Pat, the elderly and almost rudely astute landlady who lives downstairs. From my angle in the theatre I could see her slow entrance from the hall through the gap in the ajar door and every time I was full of anticipation for the next bout of wonderfully humorous wise words from this old biddy. Within minutes of her initial entrance we knew all about the previous family members and tenants of the room and within seconds we were aware of just how much Pat thought of them – very little it seems. Alison Steadman gives a greatly understated and comical performance that perfectly compliments and alters Ashton and Beckett’s hopeful and dreamy couple and she was a delight to watch.
The set was perhaps one of my favourites so far this year: throughout the scenes it so easily went from an empty shell to a home and was then so swiftly packed up into an empty shell again. This is no easy feat and nearly impossible in the real world, yet Polly Sullivan successfully pulled it off without making me feel like she were trying too hard to portray the dreams and hopes of a couple with an improbable amount of props and set pieces. Lighting was simple as it should be for an almost entirely realistic play. This realism was interrupted for a few moments as Phil impossibly disappears from the room and demotes Cath’s doubts and fears to an almost nonentity that allows the couple to move forward in their journey towards parentage and suburban housing. If only real life were as simple.
Here is truly a joy to watch but I was left a little disappointed by the amount of line reciting. This was particularly noticeable in the first scene; it took a while to become as natural and as charismatic as the script demanded and I was irked by the fact the scene after the interval repeated this disillusionment. Other than that, probably brought on by forgivable nerves, I thought the show was nicely rounded and a delight: to anyone who is in or has ever been in a relationship, the words and the characters will ring eternally true.