Owen McAfferty’s lean whippet of a play – first seen at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in 2014 – crashes two disjointed relationships into each other and then picks through the wreckage. What McAfferty unearths is an abundance of 21st-century sexual jealousy, frustration and liberation in a smart four-hander that occasionally lets itself down by saying too much.
Joan (Niamh Cusack) and Tom (Sean Campion) are in a 30-year relationship that is barely treading water. The air between them is stale, and Tom prefers to spend his evenings in a hotel bar, supping pints alone, than go home and face his demons. When he is propositioned mid-drink by a vivacious young woman, Tom is suddenly faced with the unbearably exciting, forgotten worlds of infidelity, masculinity and sexual excitement. “Is that what we’re talking about?” he asks Tara (Ruta Gedmintas). Campion says so much with that one line, which he infuses with a lifetime of fear, lust and quashed excitement, that it disappoints when he talks later of wanting to “feel alive”.
Scalded and scolding, Joan reacts to the news of her husband’s infidelity by booking a male escort and taking out her frustrations on him. The escort, it so happens, is Tara’s boyfriend. This hefty dollop of dramatic coincidence can be easily forgiven when McAfferty has structured the piece so magnificently, with each scene feeding into and robbing from the last. Lies are piled on top of lies, stories are told by evermore unreliable narrators, and each character grows more slippery and complex.
No one more so than Peter (Matthew Lewis – that’s Neville Longbottom, for the benefit of any millennials reading). Having taken a job as an escort – someone who trades in fantasy – Peter has built up so many layers of artifice that his own sense of self has all but crumbled. While Lewis may not always capture the hurt behind Peter’s eyes, he does a fine job convincing us of a young man who has decided he is a cold-blooded, self-made capitalist, not a whore.
It is Cusack’s play, however. She paces and pounces like a cat as she admonishes Tom for his discrepancy. The desperate, bruised attempts to rekindle her sex life are so acutely realised that they are almost difficult to watch. She can throw out the word “f***” like no one else.
The curious relationship between Peter and Tara feels a shadow of the rich world portrayed between the older couple, and moments of subtlety and quiet heartbreak are often undercut by characters suddenly blurting out things like “I don’t want parts of you” or “I want you to see the real me”.
However, as a study of a marriage that has grown numb with time, and how we might find once again the love that brought two people together in the first place, it is quietly heartbreaking. Director Adam Penford has ensured a snappy, peppy production, with the emo-folk music of Johnny Flynn slotting nicely in between each vignette.
Author: Chris Bennion