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The Priory

Michael Wynne
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2009)

Production photos

Like some eccentric masterchef on TV, in The Priory Michael Wynne mixes together a weird selection of theatrical genres to create a lot of laughs and a sprinkling of more serious moments.

The set designed by Robert Innes Hopkins could easily have accommodated The Mousetrap, while much of the plotting looks borrowed from an upmarket soap opera with just a soupcon of Gothic horror. Wynne then pokes fun at his characters almost throughout the 2¼ hours before an Uncle Vanya ending.

The Priory of the title is long deconsecrated and has been turned into an isolated but clearly extremely expensive holiday destination, characterised by animal imagery, which is surely not entirely coincidental.

On New Year's Eve, Kate, played by Jessica Hynes, has invited a group of friends to see out a bad year that has left her lonely and depressed.

Kate may be having a bad time but her super-successful chums are all riding what looks like a permanent high, although in some cases drugs may be involved to get there. However, Michael Wynne's message is that life is never that good for real people and success is merely an illusion that at best is underpinned by personal problems and at worst is no more than a lie.

Her gay pal Daniel (Joseph Millson) appears contented and has secretly invited his new Internet date to pop around. The lesbians Minnie and Lou seem set to become the life and soul of the party while Rebecca and Carl balance careers in television with a young family, and the last musketeer from long ago college days, Ben, arrives with his incredibly irritating new fiancée, whom he had only met for the first time at a party the night before.

These are the ingredients that Wynne and his director Jeremy Herrin mix together to cook up a comedy. It has to be said that having established their base characters, the writer does little to develop them, although each seems programmed to present their worst trait at some point between cocktails and a breakfast that is no more likely to arrive for the guests than the one in another country house comedy, Hay Fever.

For some reason, the idea of successful people behaving badly, winding each other up and showing that they are no better than the rest of us, is an ideal recipe for comedy.

Before the interval, the humour may be good-natured but thereafter it becomes considerably blacker as the yuppies vie to wreck Kate's party and challenge each other for the title of biggest fraud?

Michael Wynne may have ambitions to show a serious side as he looks into the thin veneer that so many of us use to cover fault and weakness, In reality, The Priory works best as an unsubtle comedy that is extremely funny at times, with the women getting the best parts as Jessica Hynes has fun with the justifiably insecure central figure and both Rachael Stirling as career bitch Rebecca and Charlotte Riley playing flaky Laura also stand out.

Playing until 9 January

Reviewer: Philip Fisher