Patrick Marber’s hit play brimmed with daring when it premiered in 1997. A spiky romcom of sorts, it spoke with expletive urgency about the destructive capabilities of love, intimacy and carnal desire between two modern couples.
Clare Lizzimore’s slick, intelligent revival, 25 years on, manages to bring its own sense of risk to the staging, yet exposes the limits of the play in the process.
It is a four-way love story: Dan (Jack Farthing) rescues the young, free-spirited Alice (Ella Hunt) from a road traffic accident. They flirt, she tells him she is a stripper, and he is irresistibly drawn until he meets the more worldly wise Anna (Nina Toussaint-White), who is in a relationship with Larry (Sam Troughton). So begins a tumultuous interweaving of romances and infidelities.
Lizzimore plays it squarely as a period piece using stylish distancing techniques. Prime among them is a band, as musicians Arun Ghosh and Radhika Aggarwal initially take centre stage and make great big crashing sounds, with Hunt as the stripper-cum-rock chick (purple wig, torn fishnets) beautifully belting out old indie rock hits. A sexually explicit online encounter creaks with 1990s anachronisms, made all the more comic by the clunky sound of the keyboards on which the characters type out their explicit fantasies. The theatrical machinery on Soutra Gilmour’s set lies exposed, including a dressing-room table on one side to drive home the point. A shadow cast, dressed in black, stand at the back, occasionally imitating the drama up front.
It is paradoxical to bring distance to a play about intimacy and it is remarkable that it does not bleed the power out of the dialogue, though it does place us at some emotional remove. Intimacy builds, especially in Troughton’s outstanding performance, and also comes from Richard Howell’s sharp, crisp lighting.
As the characters wound each other, Larry and Dan have flashes of Mamet’s brutes and there are hints of Pinter’s Betrayal. But none of it builds enough jeopardy and, despite some excellent scenes, the drama peculiarly wilts as the pace slows. It does not help that the play rests on the cliche of the unknowable, and doomed, stripper. Alice is a central pivot of the plot and the flattest character – an alluring femme fatale who the play seems desperate to kill off, from the first scene to the last.
The performances remain watertight and all four actors pull off some very difficult lines, although it is Troughton who commands the stage with the rage and vulnerability of a man who has been cheated on. Farthing brings good reptilian coldness but his character never reveals himself fully and feels almost as underwritten as Alice.
It is a feat that even with the weaker moments this play keeps us interested with its wit and sparks of brilliance. And that all these years later, this production manages to give it an edge.
At the Lyric Hammersmith, London, until 13 August