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Forty

Angie Le Mar
Hackney Empire
(2008)

Publicity photo

To celebrate her fortieth birthday successful black lawyer Carol (cool Orlessa Altass) tracks down some of her old schoolmates. They have not seen each other for over twenty years and she invites them for a reunion at her smart Hampstead duplex. She is the one who has made it big, getting an education, a career and a luxury apartment, but when she opens the champagne and they put the music on she can strut her stuff as much as any of them. As this five woman posse gets itself together they seem to pick up their relationships almost exactly as they were. That's where comedienne Angie Le Mar's play takes off -- for all the old difficulties and divisions are still there. Even at school this close knit group of friends had their rivalries and resentments and as the bottles empty and the minutes tick by things swing between hilarious bonding and scalding cat fight.

Le Mar herself plays Sandra who is at the opposite end of the pecking order from Carol. She wasn't aspiring and the others joke that she probably now works in Sainsbury's - and of course she does. She got pregnant while at school but now she's a grandma. She is easily riled and fond of a drink - there is a lovely moment when she tries drunkenly to get her feet into some gold sandals - but she's as sure of herself as any of them. Jennifer turns up swathed in black cloth and saying she's become a Muslim but when she whips it all off and lets her hair down Carol Moses makes her a lively piece of work, despite being so easy to take offence. Mandy, the only white girl in the gang, born more posh and still thinking herself better than the others, was going to make it in show business, but stardom has eluded her. Ellen O'Grady gives her a vicious streak under that middle class façade. Nicest and most centred of the lot is Joyce, beautifully played by Catherine Hammond, but there is a secret she is hiding, as have all the others. One of these women is being battered by her partner, one is having a baby by a married man, one has discovered she is a lesbian, one is in therapy and one has secret from schooldays to let out.

Angie Le Mar clearly knows who she is writing for: the theatre was packed out with a preponderantly female audience who were having such a good time that they were laughing before I had registered why: clearly they recognised and identified with every situation. But this is not a show just for women: there were times when I was laughing my head of when most of the house was silent. Martin Crimp or Sarah Kane it is not but amongst the hilarity Le Mar is introducing some serious themes and the audience does sometimes suddenly go quiet.

Designer Janelle Johnson has given Carol a very smart apartment and director Karena Johnson has created a slick production that adds gloss to this feisty show - though if her cast can't quite spin a bottle to order when playing truth or dare I suggest they either adapt the script Ayckbourn fashion to follow wherever it points or she masks the actual spinning.

It was great to be in a theatre packed out with a mainly ethnic audience thoroughly enjoying themselves.

At Hackney Empire until 17th August 2008. Further touring dates to be announced.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton