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Wanderlust

Nick Payne
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
(2010)

Wanderlust publicity image

Nick Payne, the winner of the 2009 George Devine Award, made a big impression at the Bush with If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet.

Wanderlust, his follow up, set in suburban St Albans, is far more lust than wander. It centres on an unhappy middle-aged couple, GP Joy Richards and her schoolteacher husband Alan, played by Pippa Haywood and Stuart McQuarrie.

Their sex life is not so much on the rocks as up the creek without a paddle. After a year of abstinence, Alan is going mad, whereas the doctor, who really ought to know better, appears close to a breakdown, trying to recover passion by numbers with the aid of a manual.

This means that the advances of others, however unwanted, take on a special significance. Joy is approached by the frankly rather weird Stephen, played by Charles Edwards. If nothing else, his chat up line is novel "I think I've got thrush". He has but, despite being married, still rather ineffectually pursues his doctor though his motivations are as muddied as her own.

The classroom passion between Alan and his lonely colleague, Sian Brooke's Clare, is at least a great deal simpler, based entirely on lust and the mutual consolation of those who feel sorry for themselves.

The fumblings between oldies are more charmingly mirrored a generation down. The Richards' 15-year-old son Tim is desperate for sex education and his more knowledgeable pal Michelle somewhat reluctantly agrees to help out, with suitable comic consequences, at least until an ageing condom fails to last the distance.

The problem with Nick Payne's sex comedy primarily lies in its portrayal of the non-sex lives of the protagonists. These are entirely formulaic, although this sometimes leads to amusing results.

If Alan is up for it (pun intended) Joy is not, while when she feels passionate, he becomes a wet blanket. Their relations with the other pair are little more successful, leading to a joyless 80 minutes during which it is only the youngsters, Isabella Laughland and James Musgrave both showing great promise, that make life seem worth living and sex worth the effort.

The missing link is love. The two affairs instantly fail for lack of it but Payne's main thrust seems to be that Joy and Alan still love each other. However, if one ignores protestations to that effect, it only manifests itself as a sentiment that gives a much stronger whiff of bitter hatred.

The final irony is delivered as the kids discover love unintentionally and in doing so give the play a happy twist.

The ideas underlying Wanderlust have promise but Nick Payne and his director Simon Godwin do not really get beneath the surface to explore why each of these people has got into such an awful state or, more importantly, how they can get escape from it.

Playing until 9 October

Reviewer: Philip Fisher