Hard Feelings was born in the turmoil of Margaret Thatcher's premiership. Political without becoming preachy, Doug Lucie's play is a scalding reaction to how society changed in the early 80s. James Hillier's new production is human, lively and not to be missed.
We are introduced to a fully-furnished (and trashed) flat in which a naked couple are disturbed from their slumber by someone opening the fridge for some milk. Then, through the excellently choreographed chaos of the (late) morning schedule, we enter the hollow lives of six twenty-somethings whose only common ground is the flat they live in and a passion for drinking. Throughout the play, we come to realise that this disparate gang have mistaken the attitude of "anything goes" with "nothing matters".
Hard Feelings is an excellently handled study in the politics of the flat-share, with arguments over who cleans up the most, who owes who money, who's in charge and, most importantly, who's in and who's out. The flat itself is a clique, the inhabitants drinking and sleeping with each other, safe from the intrusions of the outside world – that is, until Jane's boyfriend Tone arrives and upsets the status quo.
The cast are a real treat – the characters are memorable but not outlandish, larger than life but not over the top. There's anarchists and artists, control freaks and doormats. The only character that fades into the background is Annie, who generally winds up playing sidekick to someone else. Rusty is a great comic character; changing fashion faster the he does lovers – he's the epitome of the fad follower. For the first act, Viv, the "owner" of the flat (her parents own it), isn't quite as powerful or threatening as she needs to be, but after the interval she's a furnace of fury, barely containing the scorching steam inside her.
With a Thatcher-era play, you'd be a fool not to expect some political flag-waving, but in Hard Feelings you don't notice it because neither do the majority of the characters. They're just regular people, reacting to the events around them according to the rules they've set themselves – the class war and youth culture aren't tacked on to the plot, but are a fundamental part of each of the characters. That said, the militant, working-class Tone gives a vehemently antitheist speech that will rile the faithful and make fellow sinners fist-pump.
The flatmates exist in a comfortable, boozing bubble which is burst by a sudden riot nearby. Suddenly, no one is safe. Viv's paranoia cranks up a notch, and she cracks down on her friends, twisting the flat dynamic into something unsettling similar to a "with us or against us" dictatorship.
Hard Feelings really comes into its own in the second act, where the emphasis shifts to the ugly side of flat-sharing, when Jane is arbitrarily ostracised from the group. Every time she entered the room you could have choked on the tension.
The most powerful scene is between Jane and the spineless Baz, who has confused being a pushover with being too nice. The stakes are high and it shows: Baz's nervous energy contrasts Jane's still silence, and you really root for Jane to win him over and make him stand up for himself.
Hard Feelings shows us how the lies we tell ourselves and others eat into our lives until we're not sure what we believe. What matters most to the characters is keeping up appearances – of being cool, of getting on, of doing well despite getting nowhere. Everyone in the flat is stuck in their own routine, their shared delusion of happiness.
Classic 80s tracks cover the black-outs and scene changes, and the final song that plays before the actors take their well-deserved bows leaves you in the knowledge that nothing is going to change – the lies will create more lies – and the only hope is that those who have escaped will learn to discover the truth.