Perhaps it was the offer from the blog-friendly Almeida theatre of a free ticket and a glass of white wine; or perhaps it was the bikini-clad young woman on the poster which drew me to see Matthew Dunster's new play. Whatever my motives, I really enjoyed it and I hope punters will overlook some lukewarm and downright hostile reviews and go to see it.
Because I disagree strongly with lazy-minded critics such as the Telegraph's Charles Spencer who have put the knife in, I shall dissect it in a bit more detail than usual; so anyone who doesn't want the plot spoiled for them should stop reading now. Dunster is better known as a director than a playwright, but his three-acter is far better written than Mike Bartlett's heavily hyped Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court because his characters are fully imagined and thought through. There's some cracking dialogue, a sharp satirical edge and a social authenticity which put me in mind of another play I recently gave high marks to, In Basildon by David Eldridge.
Like the other two plays, this one has some great performances; Darrell D'Silva was a workmanlike Antony in last year's RSC Antony and Cleopatra, but here he is on absolutely top form as Michael, a successful Saturday night TV presenter who ends up in prison for a series of sex assaults. D'Silva starts off flushed with success, a northern salt-of-the-earth actor who has suddenly made it, with a house in Holland Park, an attractive second wife Louisa (another excellent performance by Beth Cordingly), a signed photo of Bruce Forsyth on the bookshelf and an expensive drinks collection. While Michael's career has been sprinkled with stardust and he's now topping the ratings for ITV with a programme entitled 'What's Mine Is Yours', his old Geordie pal Gordon, a fellow-actor, has become a failure. The parts have dried up and he's eking out his existence with gardening jobs. In Act One Gordon, his loyal but equally unsuccessful actress wife Sally turn up for lunch at Michael's house. There's lots of banter, a bit too much randy groping between the couples, and an atmosphere of underlying tension as Michael pours out the manzanilla while explaining pretentiously how it is made. The tension comes from Gordon and Sally's spoiled daughter Effie (newcomer Emily Berrington is superb) and her boyfriend Castro, a young man with an American father, a Zambian mother and ambitions to make hard-hitting documentary films about the environment.
When the kids walk out and the two women are packed off for a walk, Gordon asks his oldest friend for a financial rescue; Effie is pregnant, the family home is going to be repossessed and he wants to turn his gardening skills to use by setting up a proper business. It's all going to cost £250,000 -- in cash. Michael's more or less immediate agreement to stump up the money without asking too many questions seems to me totally plausible -- at least, it's a lot more believable than the blank refusal of the parents in Love, Love, Love to give their struggling daughter a penny. Michael has no children of his own, Effie is his god-daughter, Gordon and Sally are his oldest and best friends, and he's an impulsive, emotional character who responds with genuine warmth and a touch of bravado to the way Gordon breaks down in tears on his purple sofa.
In Act Two Gordon and Sally, with Castro, Effie and their baby, are happily occupying Michael's holiday home in Dorset -- effectively living there, rather than visiting. Resentments are already building up on all sides when news comes that Michael has been arrested for sexual harassment at work. The bombshell news creates fresh tensions; Sally says the charges can't be true, but the others, particularly the unpleasant Effie, seem convinced otherwise. Michael himself admits he is dead in the water. In Act Three a few more years have passed; it's the day of Gordon's funeral and he's not much missed by anyone; Sally's career has recovered, Effie's ethical designer fashion range for mums and daughters is really taking off, Michael and Louisa have divorced after Michael is sent to prison, and poor old Castro is still planning to make documentary films but not actually doing it. Enter the half-forgotten Michael, now a shabby figure in an anorak, demanding unsuccessfully to be repaid his £250,000. It's no surprise that he doesn't get it.
That summary of the plot is a bit schematic; Dunster uses monologues to the audience to open and end the play, and to introduce the second and third acts; usually I think this is a sign of bad writing, but here it's a device that makes sense, building an extra dimension to the story and the characters. In the final monologue the ghastly self-centred Effie describes how Castro, returned home after a six-month foreign fling with Louisa, is now ghost-writing her daughter's fashion blog and shooting little videos to match. It's the cruellest of comedowns for the play's only real idealist, whose big speech on the environment in Act Three is one of the play's key moments.
Castro's long tirade against oil companies for ruining the environment in the Niger Delta and Sakhalin in the Russian far east has been singled out by critics of the play as a tedious piece of bad writing; I agree that Dunster has put too many words into his character's mouth; it would have been better to have picked either the Niger Delta OR Sakhalin rather than have him talk about both. But the crucial thing about this speech is that it's not the only thing happening on stage; while the words tumble out and Castro apologises for being boring, what he is really trying to do is seduce Louisa. At first she shrinks away from his inept compliments and keeps him at a distance, but as the scene moves on we see her gradually softening to Castro's advances. It's an intelligent piece of writing which reminds me of Chekhov; Castro is a modern-day Trofimov from The Cherry Orchard, full of pompous phrases, half in love with Arkadina, but inherently ridiculous because he does absolutely nothing. It's not his concern for the environment or his ethical standards that make him a fool, but his inability to actually achieve anything in his life. Like the rest of the difficult family he has married into, he's a sponger.
The big scene between Castro (John MacMillan) and Louisa misfires for other reasons; there seems to be no real erotic spark between them, and MacMillan doesn't quite extract the comic potential that lies in the serious, well-intentioned aspects of his role. The play's other fault is that in Act Three it tips over too far towards violence and melodrama when Michael begs on his knees for his money and is driven out. A bit more subtext, a bit more awkwardness, and less screaming and confrontation, would have improved the play. Jeremy Herrin, one of the best directors around bar none, takes the play at a cracking pace, particularly in the first two acts. I would have relished a few changes of pace and some Pinteresque pauses in which the words are left unsaid, rather than spat out.
Charles Spencer in the Telegraph has comprehensively rubbished this play as 'merely unpleasant', complaining that 'There isn't a single character you warm to.' I disagree with his verdict that this is a 'dull, cynical and downright incompetent play', though I acknowledge it has its flaws. Dunster hasn't quite made the link between the play's wider social and political themes and the domestic drama of the two families. Ethics, generosity, charity and the perils of trying to do the right thing are the stuff of drama, and they go far beyond the narrow framework of friends and family. What Spencer seems to object to on principle is the 'misanthropy' of the author in daring to raise environmental concerns on stage. By contrast, he last year praised Richard Bean's 'absolute corker' of a play supporting climate change sceptics, The Heretic. I thought The Heretic was an inept load of baloney. Even more interestingly, both were directed with equal aplomb by Jeremy Herrin.