Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Muswell Hill by Torben Betts

The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

From Abigail's Party at one end of the scale to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie at the other, one can guarantee that six members of the middle class dining with one another on stage, telly or big screen is going to end in tears (actually, the Bunuel film is cleverer - it knows that the bourgeoisie just keeps strolling on), and so it does here.  What is more the reasons tend to be the same or similar: shallowness, self-delusion, sexual jealousy, selfishness, complacency - especially selfishness and complacency.  This play, which is funny and tart in that way which makes the audience unsure whether to laugh or not, features high-end career woman Jess (brilliantly played by Jasmine Hyde) hosting a dinner for her widowed friend Karen (Katie Hayes, also terrific), her husband's old college pal Simon (a role thoroughly enjoyed by Dan Starkey) and her own young sister Annie (played fetchingly by Tala Gouveia).  Annie brings along her new date, 60 year old, pony-tailed Tony, theatre director (Timothy Block).  Also present is Jess's husband Mat (Leon Ockenden).

They are of course all messed up and get even more messed up as the evening proceeds.   In one way or another they all recognize Jess as a still point in their turning worlds.  It is wholly appropriate that Jasmine Hyde simply does not stop moving throughout the show.  She is forever entering and exiting or (actually) making omelettes or filling the washing machine or taking desserts out of the fridge.  I am fairly sure the bread came in and out at least three times.  At the same time as preparing the dinner Jess is dealing with the facts that her adultery with an electrician has been revealed, that her troubled sister is being bamboozled by the charlatan director, that her husband is a useless slacker, whom she has "carried for years" (he's an unsuccessful writer, natch), that her home has been invaded by a Dave Spart who believes everyone except himself is a liar and a murderer, and cannot stop yelling, and that her best friend cannot stop talking about her deceased husband (the last two do find some kind of redemption in one another and leave together after a rather sanctimonious Buddhist homily about licking maggots off the festering wound of a dying dog).

And of course we the audience, too, are attracted to Jess over and above the others.  In this rather incoherent play, that doesn't quite know what it is about, Jasmine Hyde forces us to see that it is about Jess, and what she has to put up with.  At the end, she leaves for a breath of air, and we suspect (and hope) that she is off to her electrician (who of course is not remotely middle class, one must suppose).

Taken all-in-all this was an engaging play, made more engaging still by  strong performances that serve it very well.  Recommended. 

6 comments:

  1. i think you have missed the point. the play is not incoherent. it simply allows you to choose whose side you are on. it allows you to choose what you think it is about. a good dramatist does not simply give you a thesis.

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  2. i think you have missed the point. the play is not incoherent. it simply allows you to choose whose side you are on. it allows you to choose what you think it is about. a good dramatist does not simply give you a thesis.

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  3. I didn't want a thesis, I wanted a subject. The last scene between Jess and Mat seemed oddly tacked on to the rest of the play, as though the playwright felt he had to resolve that particular issue before signing off. I think the play would have worked better had it ended before that last scene (despite the powerful writing in it): what happens between Jess and Mat might have been better left to the audience's imagination, in much the same way as the fates of the other characters are... I wasn't aware of there being 'sides' particularly - they are all pretty frightful - and if there were I suppose it was Jess v The Rest. I think the playwright failed to recognize that this was the case; i believe it is Jasmine Hyde's performance that saves the play.

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  4. i myself had most sympathy for simon who, despite his unhappiness and awkwardness. tells the truth about the world, a truth people like jess prefer not to see. these are the sides: truth vs naivety, seeing through illusions and being poor vs self-deception in the lap of luxury. this is your subject. jasmine hyde gave a great performance but only because the writer created the role.

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  5. i myself had most sympathy for simon who, despite his unhappiness and awkwardness. tells the truth about the world, a truth people like jess prefer not to see. these are the sides: truth vs naivety, seeing through illusions and being poor vs self-deception in the lap of luxury. this is your subject. jasmine hyde gave a great performance but only because the writer created the role.

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    1. Ah well, horses for course I suppose. Simon struck me as the archetypical angry little dictator, for whom there is only one truth and who would gladly exterminate all those "liars and murderers" with whom he so vehemently disagrees. One hopes that karen will inveigle him into a more pacific, tolerant state of mind. If not, imagine how badly will fare the student who disagrees with him once he has his teaching certificate. His own hypocrisy (he doesn't mind actually drinking most of the Chilean wine) is no better than any of the others'.

      My bet is that we shall have to agree to disagree - at least we both enjoyed urselves.

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