Muswell Hill is the third play by Torben Betts to be staged at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre in the last 11 years. I missed the first, Clockwatching, in 2001 but did catch the second, The Company Man, in 2010 [review here], and found it to be an uneven but sometimes very beautiful family drama that was most memorable, in Adam Barnard’s production, for a staggering performance by Isla Blair that didn’t receive anything like the acclaim that it deserved. Directed by Sam Walters, Betts’s new play is less structurally ambitious than The Company Man, and without a central performance to equal Blair’s. But it’s a more focused and consistent piece of work, and one that offers some considerable pleasures.
The drama unfolds on a nicely-detailed kitchen set by Robyn Wilson (one which recent Bush Theatre attendees will have fun comparing to those in The Kitchen Sink and Our New Girl) in the North London flat of a young couple, Mat (Leon Ockenden) and Jess (Jasmine Hyde), who are hosting a dinner party. Those attending are two garrulous chums of the couple - the twitchy firebrand Simon (Dan Starkey) and the pernickety widow Karen (Katie Hayes) - and Jess’s adopted sister Annie (Tala Gouveia), an aspiring (and, it emerges, none-too-talented) actress/singer who brings along her fiance, the much older Tony (Timothy Block), an oily and pretentious theatre director who’s teaching Annie “all about Shakespeare. And David Hare.” It’s the 13th January 2010, and news of the Haiti earthquake is filtering through on the group’s iPhones and on Mat’s ever-present laptop. And as the wine flows freely, tensions and anxieties predictably begin to surface, as it emerges that the assembled company are all, in one way or another, dissatisfied or disappointed with the direction of their lives.
It’s an exceedingly familiar - even shopworn - dramatic set-up that Betts has resorted to here, and the spirits of Alan Ayckbourn and, especially, Mike Leigh loom a little too largely for comfort at times. Betts’s play may also put those who saw it in mind of David Lewis’s How To Be Happy, which was staged at the Orange Tree last November, and boasted similarly sharp humour and a final melancholy twist, and which also attempted to place middle-class malaise in the context of wider global and political concerns.
I liked How To Be Happy better than Muswell Hill overall, and not only for its musical selections (though Schubert and The Ronettes beat Mozart and Norah Jones in my book). But in spite of its derivativeness, Betts’s play still has much to recommend it. In particular, it brilliantly skewers the oddities of contemporary communication and a world in which global news stories form a mere “backdrop” to domestic travails. The characters squint and jab at their iPhones, responding to the events unfolding in Haiti with knee-jerk, superficial sympathy, and often only half-heartedly engaging with those who are physically present. In this atmosphere, the often ghastly and pedantic Simon’s rants against the state of the world - which culminate in a startling tirade against his hosts - gain a certain piquancy and force. When he exhorts those assembled to “riot, riot, riot!” there’s a collective in-take of breath in the auditorium.
A strength of Betts’s writing is its even-handedness. His characters are drawn in more than one dimension: he doesn’t dash to demonise them, and instead allows the audience’s sympathies to shift throughout. (I must admit that I failed to warm to Ockenden’s Mat at any point, though whether that’s due to Betts’s characterisation or the actor’s interpretation is difficult to judge.) But Gouveia, Hayes, Block and Starkey pitch their performances perfectly, while Jasmine Hyde beautifully and understatedly conveys the discontent that has led Jess to become involved with another man. The quality of these performances and the sharpness of Betts’s writing at its best make for a witty and perceptive evening that gets the Orange Tree’s spring season off to a sprightly start.
Note: I’d recommend a pre-show supper for this one, since the monkfish stew smells very, very good.
Muswell Hill is booking until 10th March. Further information at the Orange Tree website.