Monogamy

Torben Betts
The Original Theatre Company and Ghost Light Theatre
York Theatre Royal

Jack Archer (Leo), Janie Dee (Caroline), Charlie Brooks (Sally) and Patrick Ryecart (Mike) Credit: Simon Annand
Jack Sandle (Graeme) Credit: Simon Annand
Genevieve Gaunt (Amanda) Credit: Simon Annand

I’d been looking forward to Torben Betts’s latest play for a long time. Despite my reservations about his earlier comedy Invincible, I still found it solidly constructed and funny, and I was curious to see what he’d do next. The main attraction of Monogamy, however, is its leading lady, Janie Dee—one of the UK’s finest stage actors. Having loved her recent performance in Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre, I couldn’t wait to see her again.

Caroline Fletcher (Janie Dee), a fabulously successful TV chef, lives a seemingly perfect life. She has a beautifully upholstered house, a wealthy retired husband, Mike (Patrick Ryecart), and her eldest child, Leo (Jack Archer), has just graduated with a First from Cambridge. Surely life couldn’t get any better?

Except that appearances can be deceptive, and we soon discover that Caroline’s life is far from ideal. Not only does she have a drinking problem that threatens to derail her wholesome media image, but she’s stuck in a joyless marriage to an elderly, golf-loving bore. To further complicate matters, she’s embarked upon an affair with Graeme (Jack Sandle), a hunky footballer-turned-carpenter.

As the main character in Torben Betts’s new play is a TV chef, there’s a temptation to write about Monogamy using a variety of cooking metaphors. I will resist this urge going forward, except to say that the show manages to feel both underdone and overcooked at the same time.

I say "underdone" because the production doesn’t seem quite finished. Several of the actors haven’t mastered their lines yet, and there were even a few occasions where I wondered if they were reciting lines from different scripts. Hopefully everyone will be on the same page by the time they start their five-week residency at Park Theatre in June.

I say "overcooked" because there’s far too much going on. Betts’s decision to give each of his characters a troubled back-story (Mike, for example, is a bad parent because his father was physically abusive) means that Caroline, the ostensible lead, often feels sidelined and the play suffers from a fatal lack of focus as a result.

In truth, I’m not entirely sure what Monogamy is supposed to be about. The play’s title suggests that it will focus on the marriage between Caroline and Mike, but we get little real insight into their relationship. We learn, for example, that Mike has been unfaithful to his wife on various occasions, but this underlying tension in their marriage is not really explored in any meaningful way.

Similarly, the affair between Caroline and Graeme fails to convince because so little time is devoted to it. When he grabs her in a passionate clinch towards the end of the play, the effect is unintentionally funny.

The performers struggle to overcome the shortcomings of the script. Janie Dee’s considerable comic talents are squandered in a role that gives her no real opportunity to display them. She may be a constant presence onstage, but she is often rendered invisible by the chaos going on around her.

Patrick Ryecart is given little to do except be loud and boring, without being funny. Jack Archer gives a shrill performance as Caroline's heartbroken gay son and Jack Sandle struggles to bring depth to the two-dimensional character of Graeme.

Genevieve Gaunt gives an edgy performance as Caroline’s cokehead assistant, Amanda, but the character is so unpleasant and abrasive that I was relieved whenever she left the stage. As Graeme’s fragile wife, Sally, Charlie Brooks oscillates between numbness and all-consuming rage, with very little in between.

In sum, Monogamy amounts to a bunch of highly unlikeable characters airing their grievances and attacking each other, culminating in a ludicrous deus ex machina that feels totally unearned.

Reviewer: James Ballands