If Terry and June had wrestled with ennui, the result might have resembled An Hour and a Half Late, a two-hander that comes close to confronting the terror of an unfulfilled life before skating blithely over it. Peter (Griff Rhys Jones), a west London tax consultant, is ready for dinner, if only his wife, Laura (Janie Dee), would shake a leg. How can he hustle her off to an evening of jovial conversation with friends, however, when she is using words such as “chasm” and “precipice” to describe her life? As they bicker comically, their marriage threatens to unravel, beginning with the discovery that Laura didn’t have an affair after all …
Though the pair touch on pertinent topics, such as the sexist expectations that left Laura no option but to “dwindle to a wife”, the humour rarely graduates beyond sitcom level: quinoa, media studies degrees and man-buns are all offered up for derision. Matters improve with two slapstick set-pieces, including an erotically charged duet of squeaking floorboards.
Jones’s late comedy partner, Mel Smith, starred in Gérald Sibleyras and Jean Dell’s comedy back in 2006, but while the play predates Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, it has also been superseded by it. Whereas Reza showed the collapse of etiquette leading to savagery among the bourgeoisie, An Hour and a Half Late pulls back from that brink at every opportunity.
Dee captures Laura’s scattershot thought processes but never convinces as a former political radical; Jones starts out frazzled and doesn’t have many other places to go. What they do convey is the couple’s mutual affection. The irony is that Peter and Laura’s showdown reveals not hidden fissures but deep-rooted solidarity. They seem interested in, and amused by, one another in a way that renders all other obstacles moot.
If the message is that wealthy white couples in big houses have problems too, it could hardly have come at a worse time. The pay-off – that someone else will always clean up after the rich – would have more punch if this production felt like an indictment of complacency as opposed to a nice long soak in the stuff.
At Theatre Royal, Bath, until 26 February, then touring.