The People Are Friendly
The Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
The People are Friendly spends its first two hours or so in the guise of an outrageously funny comedy. Suddenly, things begin to get more serious as it turns into a social drama of life in a depressed town which has lost its dignity.
Michelle (Sally Rogers) escaped from Birkenhead to college and then to a successful career in London long ago. She and her partner Robert (Stephen Mangan), a posh Londoner, have decided, for reasons that are not immediately apparent, to make new lives in a five-bedroomed house overlooking the estate where she was brought up.
They invite her dysfunctional family around to show off their success and to let Michelle commune with her roots. It is a real toss-up as to which of the characters is funniest. Mum (Brookside's Sue Jenkins) sounds like Cilla Black and has difficulty in understanding the simplest ideas. Like dad, she is kept happy by pills. He is a former shipwright who has lost all sense of pride but dreams of the day when the new Cammell Laird will reopen.
Their other daughter, Donna, played by Michelle Butterly, is a grandmother at 32 and strives to feed her lazy lover, Brian, and three children: drug-dealing 16 year old slapper, Kirsty (Sheridan Smith), lugubrious, mute Eddie and her baby grandson. His appearance at the end is a surprise as it is almost unheard of to see a new-born babe on stage.
Michael Wynne has a great ear for dialogue and a real knack for coming up with funny lines and cruel images. If you see this play, you will never eat another stuffed vine leaf nor look at a dado rail without bursting into laughter. He is assisted by Dominic Cooke's sharp direction which ensures that a good pace is maintained through the comedy but that there is a real poignant contrast as home truths emerge and reality gets a grip.
The themes of the play are nothing new but Michael Wynne looks at them with fresh eyes. The sisters have led different lives and eventually have to come to terms with what they have gained or lost as a result. Coming together causes them to see what they have sacrificed. Almost all of the characters have secrets to hide and ambitions that can never be fulfilled. This leads to stress and unhappiness. The other major issue is life among the working classes in contemporary Britain.
While the playwright gets much of this right, the transition from comedy to serious drama is too fast. The audience doesn't know what has hit it. In addition, the characters, with the exception of Michelle and, to a lesser extent, Donna, are not well developed.
Overall, these criticisms do not matter. The acting is generally good with comic timing rarely missing. In particular, Sally Rogers gives a very strong performance both as farceur and semi-tragedian. Also a word for Jack Richards who (alternating with Joe Cooper) plays 7 year old satanic angel Eddie. He gives a hilarious mute performance that had even some hardened critics rolling around with laughter.
This may not be the perfect play but it is great fun. Buy your tickets soon as they should be selling fast.
The People Are Friendly runs until 6th July
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher