Belleville – Review

So what do Muslims do for Christmas?

Americans are often cited for their worldly naivety, jingoism and ignorance. Their Trumpisms have created a stereotype that is instantly recognisible. But you’d have thought millennials would know better.

Abby, the garrulous, paranoid, depressed wife of dishy doctor Zack, frequently finds herself saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Amy Herzog’s latest play, the riveting and compelling Belleville, now running at London’s Donmar Warehouse, finds Abby living a lie and struggling to find happiness.

What is it with husbands? Why do they always take you literally without making the effort to understand the subtext?

Abby stupidly suggested to her new hubby that she’d like to go to Paris. She meant for a mini-break, he thought she wanted to live in the world’s most romantic city.

So he dropped out of uni (or college as they call it), packed up and moved them to a shabby chic atelier in the Bohemian quarter, Belleville, taking a job in the city so that Abby could live the dream.

Belleville is 100 minutes of rising suspense and edge-of-your-seat tension that has a couple of gross-out moments, a few seconds of nudity that will make women of a certain age gasp in admiration, and an awful lot going for it.

The big draw is hunk-of-the-moment, and now being touted as a possible James Bond replacement, James Norton, who can add his growing maturity as a stage actor to a CV that is already bulging with scorching turns on TV and film. He’s terrific.

For the first 50 minutes you wonder where Belleville is leading. We’re presented with a young American couple (flawless accents), late 20s, who, despite being broke and overdue with the rent, seem to have everything.

But their perfect life isn’t all it seems – at all.

Abby, stressed about her pregnant sister back in America, is neurotic, appears to survive on medication or, when off the pills, lots of alcohol.

She talks a lot, most of it nonsense, over-analysing everything. She’s a cliche. Loud, brash, earnest. An American In Paris earning a pittance as a yoga teacher and trying to wean herself off a five-year addiction to anti-depressants.

Sex is off the menu (when we first encounter Zack he’s trying a spot of self-induced relief while watching online porn). “I am so tired of this pressure to be happy,” she complains. “I’m not happy.”

You want to give her a shake and tell her to pull herself together. She’s married to James Norton, for christssake.

There’s a scene, when the pair try out the couch after a night out, and there was an audible, collective, gasp from the Donmar audience, on Saturday, when Imogen Poots’ Abby yanks off Zack’s figure-hugging white tee-shirt.

Zack, Mr Perfect, is controlling, but cracks start to appear in his character. He appears addicted to smoking weed and dodges going to work, while his wife continues to moan at how disappointed she is with life.

To use an Americanism, she has a lot of emotional baggage….

But then, it turns out, so does he. You don’t know who is more mixed up. Both vulnerable, fractured and flawed, this couple, who should have it all, don’t appear to have anything, least of all a solid relationship.

There isn’t an interval, and rightly so, for, as the play reaches its climax the pair’s behaviour becomes more erratic and unstable.

Watching from the sidelines are the couple’s landlords, French-speaking Alioune and Amina – actors Malachi Kirby and Faith Alabi – who play only minor roles in the couple’s catastrophic and, ultimately, tragic, relationship crisis.

Their underwritten parts don’t give the couple much to do except clear-up after a couple who find the reality of life, even in gay Paree, too much to cope with.

Norton is outstanding as the secretive, pot-smoking Zack.

He delivers a complex, multi-layered performance that excites, shocks and disturbs. Zack walks a tightrope between sanity and madness that one can only blame on imbibing too much cannabis (an anti-drug message was the last thing I expected).

Imogen Poots is emerging as a hugely watchable stage actress. She has a moment here, with a large chef’s knife and a big toenail, that will remain with me, and you, forever. The audience was aghast.

What complicated lives some people live.

Belleville is running at the Donmar Warehouse until February 3.

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