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Amongst Friends

April de Angelis
Hampstead Theatre
(2009)

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With friends like these .... it is not particularly surprising that one of the charaters steps off a penthouse balcony just after the interval.

One or two audience members might also have been seeking oblivion by that stage of watching a play that has high ambitions but entirely fails to deliver. Its portrayal of five self-centred people says little about humanity and merely scratches the surface of a number of serious issues that deserved deeper exploration.

The expensive, minimalist flat in which the story unfolds boasts its own lift and has been lovingly designed by Patrick Connelan, who gives a breathtaking aerial glimpse of the city of London beyond that fatal balcony.

It belongs to a shallow tabloid journalist, Lara (played by Helen Baxendale), and even shallower Tory MP turned schlock crime writer turned prospective Tory MP, Aden Gillett as Richard.

The slim beauty dresses like Victoria Beckham, suffers from agoraphobia and has an acidic tongue that switches into and out of a south London accent. Her pompous husband demonstrates all that is wrong with Parliament today.

Their dinner party guests are equally underwritten. Caitlin (Emma Cunniffe) is a nurse who specialises in breasts (cue for a laugh) and has somehow transformed herself into the next big thing on the literary front. Joe is the kind of drugs counsellor who might well make his charges top themselves so keen is he to sneer and offer sarcastic observations.

Six years after Lara and Richard left scary suburbia for what looks like Docklands, old wounds are reopened, though the past affairs are hard to credit amongst people such poles apart. This is an inevitable consequence of the desire to make the point that wealth and gated communities do not guarantee happiness.

The first act develops into a kind of cutdown contemporary version of An Inspector Calls. TV comedienne Shelley (Vicki Pepperdine) somehow breaks through all of the security to invade the apartment.

This drug-addicted prostitute is a monument to bling. She spins the most unlikely yarn about a junkie son who died on active service in Basra and takes the blame in turn around each of the prospective diners, who then fall over themselves to give her money and bank account details.

Following the interval, the accusations become far more introspective, particularly after the sad demise of dull Joe. The home team have now decided that they prefer knocking chips off each other's shoulders to seeking marital escape and the arrival of the grieving widow does little but make them even nastier.

The idea of presenting a play about major contemporary issues such as the failure of money to buy you love, political skulduggery and the tragedy of Iraq must have seemed seductive. The danger with such commissioning is that the result may not turn out as originally planned.

In part, that might be the case with Amongst Friends because a sitcom format doesn't act as a good medium for the material. It doesn't help that far too many of the jokes are either in bad taste or miss their targets.

There is also the impression that April de Angelis has written a series of impassioned speeches about major issues and parcelled out amongst her characters at times almost randomly.

Hampstead is now halfway through its Golden Jubilee year and there is every chance that it will get over this minor hiccup when Frank McGuinness' wonderfully moving Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme arrives next month.

Playing until 13 June

Reviewer: Philip Fisher