Belleville

Amy Herzog

Donmar Warehouse

From 07 December 2017 to 03 February 2018

Review by Philip Fisher

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In this edgy American drama, Abby and Zack are living the dream. Still in their twenties, the couple have recently married and subsequently relocated to Paris.

Admittedly, rather than a swanky suburb that would seem natural for a recently qualified doctor carrying out AIDS research for Médecins Sans Frontières, they are in multi-cultural Belleville but that is still pretty cool.

To add to the good fortune, Abby’s sister is about to have a first child, although a visa problem means that they cannot spend the impending Christmas holidays at home with the family.

On stage, even in the season of goodwill, life is never quite this good and Amy Herzog slowly allows cracks to appear in the dream.

Actress turned yoga coach Abby, played by Imogen Poots who has a growing screen reputation and made such a strong impression in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, is trying to wean herself off antidepressants, originally prescribed following her mother’s untimely death. Another screen favourite James Norton takes the role of Zack, who seems equally dependent and artificial intoxicants, in his case "weed".

He shares this with a friend, their landlord Malachi Kirby’s Alioune, a second generation Frenchman of Senegalese stock who works hard with his cheerless but determined wife Amina played by Faith Alabi to support their happy family with two infant children. Up to this point, the story sounds relatively familiar.

When Alioune tactfully reminds Zack that the rent is four months overdue, alarm bells begin to ring and the tenant’s behaviour progresses from defensive to something more suspicious, not helped by Abbie’s mood swings and their collective bad luck.

Amy Herzog has seemingly set out to portray a happy, young couple with the world at their feet and then begun to subvert the tale, adding layers of mystery while still realistically exploring the psychology of her characters and comparing ambitious dreamers with those leading more realistic but mundane lives.

Although it is set just before Christmas with a birth in the offing, Belleville is far, far away from the standard fare at this time of year, more likely to send audience members home in a state of shock than with a big post-panto smile on their faces.

Under Michael Longhurst’s direction on a hyper-realistic set designed by Tom Scutt, Imogen Poots once again shines as moody Abby, while James Norton almost hits the same heights, although is very slightly less convincing in conveying the duality of his character’s personality.