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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Muswell Hill
Orange Tree Theatre   February-March 2012

Torben Betts has written an imitation Alan Ayckbourn play. It's a pretty good imitation, as such things go, though of course not as good as the real thing.

Like Ayckbourn, Betts uses a mix of comedy and drama to uncover the pain hidden just beneath the social veneer of middle-class life. In this case he combines it with the truism that personal concerns, however petty, will always engage us more than enormous tragedies thousands of miles away.

His play is set in a London dinner party on the night of the 2010 Haitian earthquake. As news of the rising death toll filters in one of the play's running gags is that everyone is constantly checking their phones for text messages, emails, Facebook postings and tweets everyone tut-tuts and then gets back to their more immediate concerns. 

These range from the tiny an unexpected plus-one, what to serve the vegetarian to the larger at least one marriage crumbles before our eyes and nobody is capable of putting them into the correct proportion compared to the news from Haiti.

It's a small insight, and not a particularly new one, but it's a legitimate thing for a play to remind us of. And so are some of Betts' other insights, like the way a deeply unhappy man will externalise his frustrations into political jargon and, conversely, how what appears to be a typical infidelity is actually at least partly a reflection of economic pressures.

The host and hostess of the dinner have invited an old friend of hers, an old friend of his, and her sister, who brings along her very inappropriate new lover. People who are meant to like each other don't, political discussions get out of hand, too much is drunk, flirtations go awry, things are said that are difficult to retract, and things are pretty much a shambles at the end, in the tiniest of parallels to the state of things in Haiti, which has been all but forgotten. 

A structural limitation of the play, and something that keeps it from the Ayckbourn level, is that whereas the master can blend farce and tragedy, making you laugh and then be caught up short by the realisation that you're laughing at real pain, Betts can only mix them uneasily, uncomplicatedly comic moments alternating with scenes of raw emotion. 

Another is, as I've suggested, that there's no real news here. By the end we've learned things about each of the characters, but they're not especially surprising. Didn't we see the fault lines in the host couple's marriage in the very first scene? Don't we know everything there is to know about the sixty-year-old man dating the unstable twenty-year-old the minute he walks on? 

The two neurotic friends are inevitably going to pair off just because they're both desperately needy, and it's obviously doomed, and the character insights Betts offers as to exactly why they're needy and why they're doomed aren't much different from what we might have guessed. 

There are some legitimate laughs here, and of course director Sam Walters' usual impeccable production (It's set in a kitchen, and you can smell the monkfish stew actually cooking). If it doesn't add up to much, and if you keep thinking that Ayckbourn could have done it a lot better, it's still a pleasant way to spend a Richmond evening.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Muswell Hill - Orange Tree Theatre 2012

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