Mates in Chelsea

Rory Mullarkey
Royal Court Theatre
Royal Court Theatre (Downstairs)

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Philipp Mogilnitskiy as Oleg Mikhailovich Govorov and Amy Booth-Steel as Mrs Hanratty Credit: Manuel Harlan
Fenella Woolgar as Agrippina Bungay and Laurie Kynaston as Tug Credit: Manuel Harlan
Laurie Kynaston as Tug and Amy Booth-Steel as Mrs Hanratty Credit: Manuel Harlan
Amy Booth-Steel as Mrs Hanratty Credit: Manuel Harlan
Laurie Kynaston as Tug (as Oleg Mikhailovich Govorov), Fenella Woolgar as Agrippina Bungay and Karina Fernandez as Simone Montesquieu Credit: Manuel Harlan
Laurie Kynaston as Tug, Karina Fernandez as Simone Montesquieu, Amy Booth-Steel as Mrs Hanratty and Fenella Woolgar as Agrippina Bungay Credit: Manuel Harlan
George Fouracres as Charlton Thrupp Credit: Manuel Harlan

Arriving audiences are greeted by the sight of a minimalist interior where a Lenin-like figure is lying on a red recliner. They will soon discover that this is the Chelsea pad of posh parasite Theodore Bungay, a Viscount with a castle in Northumberland who prefers to be known as “Tug”, but the mysterious figure will disappear when the play starts with Viscount Bungay’s housekeeper, Mrs Hanratty, singing the Soviet national anthem as she energetically sharpens a cake slice.

Aristo and communist have been together since his first days at Oxford when she arrived as his bed-maker. Her West Midlands and his toffee-nosed talk mark their class difference, but it's an amicable arrangement. Tug is far more afeared of his mother than of revolution. The Gorgon of Dimley Grange, as his friend Charlton calls her, will soon arrive on a visit to chide him about his extravagance.

Tug also has a fiancée to pacify with quantities of flowers and expensive biscuits. After seven years engaged, he still hasn’t fixed their wedding date, even though she is due to inherit a family empire in haulage, but then he thinks he’s loaded. He isn’t. The Gorgon is coming to tell him the money is spent, they are selling the castle to a Russian oligarch.

Titled wealth discovering it is broke and a not-so-bright wastrel relying on a much brighter servant: it is not exactly original even though the introduction of a Russian oligarch (and here there seem to be at least four of him) and a lesbian romance with a financial advisor do push it closer to the contemporary satire it may be aiming at.

Laurie Kynaston as never done a day’s work Tug and Fenella Woolgar as his cut-crystal-voiced mother give strong performances and get lots of laughs, but I couldn't help feeling they were playing with a sign overhead saying “we are being funny”. It works better when it turns to farce after the interval.

I was won over by Amy Booth-Steel’s delightful Mrs Hanratty. She finds the reality in this zany invention and captures the spirit that Sam Pritchard’s well-mounted production just misses.

Less real but equally engaging is George Fouracre as Tug’s friend Charlton, who turns up back from Afghanistan still dressed as a tribesman. He seems to see himself as a male Gertrude Bell or Freya Stark getting kitted up for every overseas trip in “authentic couture” by a chap he calls his Cultural Stylist. He covers his risks by his wide connections: if he makes eyes at the wrong warlord’s nephew, he calls up the RAF to airlift him out of the situation. Fouracre delivers a spur of the moment fake monologue as though it is the real thing. It is there to cover a scene change but he makes it totally engaging.

Mates in Chelsea needs to be more solidly grounded to work as satire. There are echoes of a Wodehouse world, but perhaps it is closer to Firbank and instead should take bigger risks. It does have a lot of laughs, there is a stylish design by Milla Clarke and, though it isn’t a “must see”, the performances make it an enjoyable evening.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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