Mat (Jason Alan Carvell) and Jess (Colleen Clinton) live together in Muswell Hill, one of the most expensive suburbs in London. He’s a good looking ex-model (imagine a younger Brian Stokes Mitchell) and aspiring novelist. She has a high level position at an accounting firm and acts as breadwinner. Mat is glued to his laptop while Jess cooks dinner. Cooks! The sparking, white, modern kitchen Set has a working water tap and stove. (Scenic Design – Edward T. Morris.) Something smells delightful. Directorial small business is completely believable. We feel, throughout, like voyeurs.
The couple offhandedly chat, with Mat intermittently referring to/watching news reports on an horrific earthquake in a third world nation. Just as he notes, as if in passing, that he’s been told Jess is having an affair with an electrician, the first guest arrives for their dinner party. A case of postponed consequences rather than saved by the bell.
Lily Dormant, Sarah Street, John Pirkis
Karen (Lily Dorment) obliviously prattles on without discernible breathing, often referring to her husband, Julian, whom we later discover committed suicide. A problematic guest, she doesn’t eat fish – the main dish is Monkfish Stew, eschews offered vegetables – no carbs after six, and won’t drink, at least initially. Mat goes out to buy her Irn Bru – a fizzy Scottish drink. “Did you hear about this earthquake?”
Simon (Richard Hollis), an old school roommate of Mat’s, was ostensibly invited for Karen. He’s highly judgmental, tightly wound, possibly psychotic, and barely conversational, until wine looses his tongue – at which point he blisteringly pontificates. Simon is on the make and delighted to have been asked the same night as Jess’s 23 year-old sister whose photo he steals from a ledge. He and Karen appear to be oil and water. “Who’s the freak?” she mouths to Jess.
Richard Hollis and Colleen Clinton
When younger sister Annie (Sarah Street) arrives in a loud, giggly fluster (and hot pants), she tells Jess that her new fiancé, Tony (John Pirkis), will follow shortly. Not only did Jess not know Annie was engaged, but she hadn’t invited the man. Said swain turns out to be a swaggering, 60 year-old married actor/director i.e. a player who’s promised to teach the young women Shakespeare and David Hare. Mat likes Tony but Jess hates him at first sight. “Why can’t you ever be happy for me?!” Annie whines.
Over the course of an evening with participants passing in and out of the kitchen and unseen dining room, everyone but Mat and Jess gets roaring drunk. The laptop is referred to as are any number of cell phones (just like real life). Conversational topics include football, politics, careers, relationships, and the earthquake – paralleling histrionic social drama with actual tragedy.
Lily Dormant and Sarah Street
The meal is created (shrimp/avocado looks divine, but the fish casserole and beautiful raspberry tart would never feed that many people), excessive alcohol imbibed, dishes eventually washed. Inhibitions shed with indecent ease; criticism and jealousy erupt, salaciousness oozes, truth is excavated. Liaisons form and disband.
Torben Betts is a splendid observer. Every character feels authentic, every conversation true to its sources. Simon’s bitter, intellectual exposition on the classes and Annie’s godawful recitation from Cleopatra are notable. A sense of interior lives make surface outbursts all the more real.
Caveats are few. I found the piece one disposable scene too long and object to musically accompanied blackouts after every scene which impedes innate flow. We’re AT that party and should feel as trapped as its diners. I assume this was a decision made by Director Shannon Patterson who otherwise does a simply marvelous job with personality specifics, physicality, small business, and timing. One scene finds Karen and Simon drawn to each other, each defensively clutching an empty service plate removed from the table, unwilling to comply with Jess’s repeated “just put those down over there.”
Jason Alan Carvell and Colleen Clinton
The entire cast is terrific. In particular, Sarah Street’s Annie is excruciatingly naïve and emotive, Lily Dorment’s Karen has a palpably wince-worthy, grating persona, Richard Hollis’s’ Simon evokes shudders.
Photos by Todd Cerveris
Opening: Richard Hollis, Lily Dorment, Colleen Clinton, Jason Alan Carvell, John Pirkis
The Barrow Group Theatre Company and The Pond Theatre Company present
Muswell Hill by Torben Betts
Directed by Shannon Patterson
The Barrow Group
312 West 36 Third Floor
Through December 16, 2017