Out of Season

Neil D'Souza
Celia Atkin
Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

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Neil D'Souza ( Dev) James Hillier ( Michael) Peter Bramhill (Chris) Credit: The Other Richard
Catrin Aaron (Amy) and Peter Bramhill (Chris) Credit: The Other Richard
James Hillier (Michael) Credit: The Other Richard

Buckle up and enjoy the ride. Neil D’Souza’s hilariously entertaining new play rollercoasters down memory lane as three middle-aged men return to party it large in Ibiza. The boys are back in town to celebrate a 50th birthday and longstanding friendship, hoping to replay fond memories of all-nighters, partying, swigging booze and swallowing pills.

The play opens in Room 547, or jokingly named “stairway to heaven” by the trio on their earlier visit—30 years ago. We first meet eternally youthful Chris (Peter Bramhill), who still harks back to his student days and performs his ditties on a travel-size guitar, playing the lyrics he wrote with his main man, Dev (also played by D’Souza), at Uni.

Dev seems to have got his act together. He’s a university music lecturer and music therapist who loves classical music and literature. He’s openly in therapy—all part of his Woody Allen-esque shtick—an intellectual but still a victim, specifically of racism, revealed as the play rolls on. He’s got a bad back and would rather bury his head in his book, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, it turns out, than go clubbing. Then there’s the mysterious Michael (James Hillier), the third friend and coke-snorting music manager who only appears in the second half to blow everything out of the water.

Meanwhile, as the boys hang out in the miserable bedroom waiting for their third band member to arrive, they meet a couple of girls, Holly (Kerry Bennett) and Amy (Catrin Aaron), whom they squabble over, but eventually they pair off happily.

The fabulous use of space in Hampstead's small studio downstairs transports us into to a stifling, cheap hotel. Janet Bird’s ingenious design breaks the stage into a basic room with ensuite toilet and breeze block terrace. The balcony is bathed in purple and pink party lighting, and Harry Blake’s sound adds to the atmosphere, building party noise down poolside to authentically locate us into bucket holiday territory. The terrace also allows for action to take place in two different zones at the same time. Chris lures his woman onto the balcony to flirt, while Dev sulks under the duvet.

Alice Hamilton’s direction is instinctively tuned in with the beat and pace of D’Souza’s writing as we move from hearing about hedonism to something more destructive within their friendships that creeps up on us with a slow, sustainable power, keeping us guessing the whole way. It's hard to lose interest, because just when you've got a grip of the relationship dynamics, everything changes.

As the action takes a turn and heats up in the second half, all long-held grudges and violence erupts in a volcanic flow of hurt, pain and injustice. Michael's arrival upsets the applecart and his personality is borderline abusive, especially towards Dev, whom he ends up shutting back in the wardrobe, much to the distress of the girls.

Dev loves Dvorak and is partial to the New World Symphony. Michael still wants a quick "toot" before going clubbing. There was always going to be friction. The boys all put in convincing performances, from Hillier's Michael—a creepy, grinning Cheshire cat with psychotic overtones—to D'Souza's Dev's innocent grumpiness, the perfect dramatic counterpart to Bramhill's Chris as a lovable wastrel.

In the main, it's eye-watering, laugh-out-loud fun, but D’Souza’s bitingly sharp-tongued dialogue pulls scabs off the surface to turn light-hearted entertainment into something grittier in an examination of how it feels to be a washed-up, middle-aged, man, childless and alone. It’s bleak, but told endearingly, so it’s hard to not feel great swathes sympathy for the two protagonists, Chris and Dev. Such journeys are rarely seen through the male gaze, but often documented through the female experience, so it’s interesting to see that this play reveals that male singledom in your 50s is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Ironically, it’s the women in the play who seem to be the lads' only hope for redemption. Kerry Bennett’s Holly is played with just the right amount of party spirit, who reins it in towards the end when her maternal instincts are flared into action over the mistreatment of Dev. She’s sassy and seductive with her fluorescent biker shorts and money belt, ready for a “Rula Lenska” (Chris's cocktail concoction) night or day. There’s something beautifully developed about the two female characters. Amy is quieter but—like Chris—they share musical history. She was once in a band in Hull and puts in a twinkling rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun”. The women’s easiness both in spirit and moral compass only serve to highlight the men as half-formed beings both emotionally and intellectually.

Finally, when the trio’s poisonous relationship that has been allowed to fester for decades breaks down, this breezy comedy takes on deeper resonance. Jokes aside, no amount of booze can cover up the truth that lies beneath as the audience are left with a darker tale of broken souls and unfulfilled dreams.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi

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