Tweet tweet. If Woody Allen, Alan Ayckbourn and Mike Leigh joined forces to guest-write an episode of HBO’s In Treatment then it’s possible that the end result might be something like Seven Year Twitch, the lamely named but rather enjoyable new comedy from writer/director David Lewis, which has just opened at the Orange Tree. Like Lewis’s last play, the excellent How to be Happy, Seven Year Twitch is another relationship roundelay of marital discord, this time filtered through two key elements: psychotherapy and -yup - bird-watching. It’s a “shrink-rapt” comedy, you might say: sometimes sketchy and undeveloped, not entirely satisfying in the end, yet full of funny moments and engagingly tart exchanges scene by scene.
The plot concerns two therapists – colleagues and former paramours – and their intricately interconnected clientele. In the first scene, Megan (Lucy Tregear) is counselling the nervy Ben (Paul O’Mahony), a charity worker, who, following a confession of impotence, recounts an embarrassing incident at a dinner party hosted by Fran (Amanda Royle). The focus then shifts to Fran during a session with her analyst Charlie (Paul Kemp), in which she bemoans the obsessive tendencies of her competitive “twitcher” spouse Terry (Simon Mattacks) who’d missed said dinner party due to an impromptu bird-watching expedition. Dissatisfied with his profession these days, Charlie’s own marriage to Karen (Kate Miles) is also going through a sticky patch, wouldn’t you know. Karen is lusted after by Megan, who, at Charlie’s behest, ends up taking on Terry as a patient. Terry then falls for a fellow twitcher, Jill (Johanna Tincey). Further complications ensue.
Seven Year Twitch plays as an ever-escalating relay of comic high anxiety, in which the characters go through so many surprise shifts in erotic attachment that they could be auditioning for an appearance in an Iris Murdoch novel. Punchier and more profane than Ayckbourn, Lewis is great at depicting moments of social awkwardness. And - as the writer of a play about Feydeau - he doesn’t fear pushing the action into full-blown farce either – notably in a terrific sequence that finds Terry sheltering in a chair-hide in the living room while his randy wife enjoys herself in front of him with a new lover on the floor.
Yet Lewis’s production delivers moments of repose and reflection too; these rub up nicely against the broader episodes and mitigate the more contrived and schematic aspects of the plotting. (As in How to be Happy, a character’s classical music fixation once again helps to supply a melancholy undertow, and here allows for an understated, but very beautiful, close to the first half.) While there’s nothing very novel about the play’s notion that shrinks are every bit as screwed up as their clients, Seven Year Twitch is nonetheless at its sharpest on patient/therapist dynamics and the diverse contours of such relationships, which we see shifting, variously, from cool professionalism to irritation by way of sympathetic interest and even tenderness.
The incidents described by the patients slide fluidly into flashbacks, with the same events sometimes shown from contrasting perspectives. But fortunately the play doesn’t get stuck on a tedious Intimate Exchanges/Constellations-style track of endless variations. Nor does it offer the obvious satirical stance on therapy that you might anticipate. Rather, the various theories that Megan and Charlie proffer regarding their clients’ behaviour can sound equal parts convincing and glib. Lewis allows the audience to make up its own mind on that score, and once again gives each of his protagonists a measure of awareness and self-delusion. Analogies between birdy and human behaviour crop up, but the playwright ensures that these aren’t hammered home in the way that the corny title suggests that they might be; there’s not even a shag gag to be heard.
The play’s structure means that we get told an awful lot about the characters, some of which isn’t exactly demonstrated by what we see. But perhaps this disjuncture is part of the point. After all, Seven Year Twitch is mostly concerned with the misunderstandings that occur within relationships, with faulty perception of others, and how gestures and actions can be misinterpreted. That’s the source of the play’s sadness - and also of its comedy. (One thing comes through clearly, though: however well intentioned, it’s probably never a good idea to present your wife with a dead bird - rare or not - as a peace-offering.)
|Amanda Royle in Seven Year Twitch (Photo: Robert Day)|
If there’s a problem here it’s that Lewis throws a few too many elements into the mix and struggles to juggle them, with the result that the play doesn’t snap together as satisfyingly as How to be Happy did. Too many traumas end up getting tossed around - abortions, alcoholic and absent parents, dead infants and a heap of Daddy issues - and some of the musings fail to convince. Charlie’s ranty theory on gender roles sounds rehearsed, while Fran’s tirade against consumerism (though better made) might have been drawn directly from Lewis’s previous play. And though all of the actors deliver sharp, well-defined performances - with especially fine work from Tregear and Royle (the latter a dead ringer for Lesley Manville here) - a couple of characters go to waste, feeling less fully integrated into the plot than they might have been.
Despite these shortcomings, there’s much to enjoy in Seven Year Twitch and much to admire about Lewis’s writing, in particular the way it doesn’t take the obvious route: the play spends a lot of time seeming to edge two of its characters towards each other, for example, and then completely subverts that expectation at the end. Relationships in Lewisland are incomplete, messy, frustrating affairs, resisting closure and final “analysis.” Still, for all the cynicism about human interaction that’s expressed, Lewis manages to end the play on a moment of possibility and openness, with the potential beginning of something. Two people face each other in a room once again. One encourages the other into intimacy with two simple, precious yet also deadly words: “I’m listening.”
The production runs until 22 June.