It is unclear if Kerry Jackson, the “gobby woman” (by her own admission) at the centre of this discomforting comedy, is villain, antihero or something else altogether. An Essex-born Thatcher’s child living in gentrified Walthamstow, east London, she dreams of making her new tapas bar into a roaring success. She is a leave voter who hates the neighbourhood’s homeless man Will (Michael Fox), threatens her black chef Athena (Madeline Appiah) with deportation, fawns over Stephen (Michael Gould), the white, middle-class man who she hopes will write her a restaurant review, and thinks getting raped in her youth was her own fault for being drunk. On the plus side, she has brass, humour and loves a boogie.
Written by April De Angelis and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, this drama seems built on a thought experiment: what would happen if Kerry (Fay Ripley), an unlikely character to be placed at the heart of a comedy, were surrounded by her ideological opposites? But an interesting thought experiment does not always make for an interesting drama, as this production proves.
We see the sparks that come from placing those on different sides of class, race and economic divides in close proximity, and also the bonds made across the breaches. But none of it seems genuine and everyone is reduced to type. Ripley does her best to make Kerry an updated version of Beverly in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, but the character is saddled with too many working-class cliches (plain speaking, foul-mouthed bawdiness) and does not have enough good jokes.
Same goes for the rest of them. Stephen is a lefty who wears vegan shoes and emanates white privilege and guilt. His gen-Z daughter Alice (Kitty Hawthorne) speaks in sentences such as “You are dis-authenticating me” and gives the uneducated Jackson books in a lurch towards an “Educating Kerry” subplot. Will’s characterisation is the most problematic: the appalling story of his childhood abuse warrants only a passing anecdote and his life is sacrificed, it seems, to further the plot.
Conversations clang with exposition, the characters often describing themselves. As they convene in Kerry’s restaurant, there is a fleeting resemblance to Cheers, just without the depth or sharp one-liners. The best bits come when characters stop talking and start dancing, with a sweet sense of girls behaving badly as Kerry and Athena blast up the music, but that can’t save this play from sinking.
• At the National’s Dorfman theatre, London, until 28 January