Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Muswell Hill

Torben Betts
Orange Tree Theatre

Muswell Hill

The audience may have turned off their mobile phones but the characters in Torben Betts's new play most certainly have not. While iPhones and Blackberries and laptops are bringing in news of a disastrous earthquake on Haiti (it is January 2010) these people are busy chattering, texting and tweeting. They may be having conversations but they are not listening to each other.

In a very up-to-the-minute designer kitchen in north London, Matthew (who likes to be known as Mat) and Jessica (Jess) have invited a couple of friends for dinner. Karen is an old friend of hers, a young widow (and thereby hangs a tale) and Simon is a former best buddy of his, returned to Britain after many years abroad. There is more than a hint of matchmaking with two lonely people.

Mat is hunched over a laptop, depressed at another rejection of his novel. Jess, when she's not on the 'phone talking, asks for comment on her new frock, Mat answers without looking up. She makes similarly supposedly supportive noises about his writing. Yes, it is one of those clichéd situations that is too horribly true. Jess's high powered job with an accountancy firm seems to finance them both. Leon Ockenden's blandly charming Mat could be a house-husband except that it is Jasmine Hyde's beautifully brought up Jess who is doing the cooking.

There is tension in the air. Already they are wondering whether this evening is such a good idea. Then Mat reveals what has been preoccupying him and confronts Jess for he's heard that she's having an affair, and of all things with an electrician, that he's an Australian electrician seems to make it worse. But before she can answer the doorbell rings.

Of course the guests are from hell. Katie Hayes larger than life, awkwardly posturing Karen, always on about her dead husband, has reverted to vegetarianism in his memory and that rules out most of the menu and insists on Irn Bru instead of wine, so that Mat has to go out to buy some. She also never stops talklng. Nor does Simon, a mentally unstable, ranting radical won't eat anything on the menu which Dan Starkey delivers with a violence that entirely matches this vertically challenged idealist.

Simon knocks back the booze like a thirsty pelican but when Jess's adopted sister Annie turns up, somewhat late and reveals she'd assumed the invitation included her previously-unknown new fiancée, a theatre director forty-years her senior, the fact they met at an AA meeting doesn't stop them downing. We watch Tala Gouneia's sexily confident Annie and Timothy Block's apparently successful Tony rapidly disintegrate "In vino veritas" and all that, so of course we are in for some pretty terrible home truths whether people are supposed to hear them or not. "He didn't want to live a bog standard life in the suburbs like you" is only a beginning.

It is not exactly new ground and by the end you are feeling that not even the sane-seeming Mat and Jess are people you would want to spend a real evening with, but Sam Walters's lively direction points its satire sharply, with a brief hiatus between scenes used to emphasis the lack of real communication in these lives. You can't help feeling sorry for these people as you laugh at them and most of Simon's savage truths about the way the world is run bite home however hilarious his ranting makes them.

When Mat declares that he just wants to get one book published to leave something behind that expresses his opinion, his wife asks "what is your opinon?" and he has no answer. There is an undercurrent here suggesting that those who just want to get on with living their material lives are in need of introspection.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton