I knew I’d like Niamh Cusack’s Joan from the moment she storms onto the stage, her eyes blazing and her volcanic temper ready to erupt at her errant husband of 30 years, Tom.
Unfaithful, which opened this week at London’s Found111 theatre, will strike a note with middle aged married couples everywhere. Sure, we’ve not all resorted to hiring a (rather appealing) toyboy for sex, but there’s many that would probably fantasise about it.
Owen McCafferty’s blistering dialogue is right on the button. Scathing, vitriolic and very funny, I couldn’t help wondering if it was autobiographical or whose marriage hiccups he had been observing.
Anyone who has been married for more than 30 years, and I am one, will recognise the set up in Unfaithful and, perhaps that’s why I warmed to it.
It’s about communication and who – after living with the same person for three decades – recognises that issue?
Marriage starts out full of heartfelt conversations, secrets and worries shared, concerns aired. But the talking stops as the years roll on.
There is still a sort of perfunctory dialogue – about the kids, the home, occasionally the work, whose turn it is to empty the bins and clean the loos – but, and it reaches crisis point when the couple become empty-nesters, on some now forgotten date, the talking stops.
You start going about your lives, moving around each other as two seperate halves and no longer a whole.
The stage at Found has a mirrored wall and a double bed. That’s it. Like Emily Dobbs Productions’ previous outing here, the acclaimed Bug, the audience are back in the role of voyeurs, sitting – intruding – on the most intimate moments in the lives of two couples.
On storms Joan. Cusack is firing on all cylinders, about to have the mother of all rows, you know, the one no-one is really prepared for. Tom stands there, disarmed, ashamed and angry.
“That’s it?” she screams incredulously. “No answer?”
I look at my notebook. “Typical man” I scribble. Later, I also jot down “male menopause” “depression” and “midlife crisis”. Needless to say I don’t have much sympathy for Tom and that’s wrong, that’s part of Joan’s (and my) problem.
Tom has revealed that he’s just had sex with a young girl who chatted him up in a bar. Joan wants answers, details. She wants to discuss why. Tom, a plumber, is embarrassed. He doesn’t want to discuss it – at all.
“Have the f**king conversation” she screams at him. So they do. He goes into extraordinarily explicit and graphic detail about what they did. Where his fingers went, where her mouth went. “In your dreams,” I write prophetically.
Joan now goes nuclear. It’s not that she’s so appalled at what Tom says he has been doing. It’s that he has never done anything like that to her. Not even close. With a sudden awful realisation she finds herself at 51, with her vital years behind her, and on the brink of ending her marriage.
“I have been cheated of time!” she wails, her confidence and self esteem through the floor.
We meet another couple at the other end of life’s highway. They’re both young and, we presume in love. Tara works on a Tesco till while her boyfriend, Peter, is a whore. Okay, he’s an escort, paid to sleep with anyone, male or female.
By an astonishing coincidence, and through the course of this 70-75 minute play, we discover that Tara is the young lady willing to drop her knickers for Tom and Peter is Joan’s retribution.
A lot is packed into this drama. Through its five scenes, tightly directed by Adam Penford, we meet four damaged people who have lost the art of communication.
Unable to discuss their fears and concerns with their partners, they have retreated into a fantasy world. They delude themselves that everything’s fine when, in fact, they have become dehumanised and desensitised to the feelings of others.
The women – Niamh Cusack and Ruta Gedmintas – are the obvious victims, wanting security, affection, and all the emotional baggage. Tara is so desperate to understand why Peter is willing to sell himself for sex – but not commit to her – that she is prepared to try it, just once, for herself.
But the men – Sean Campion as Tom and Matthew Lewis as Peter – are victims too (I can just see McCafferty insisting that his men also win our sympathy).
No disrespect, but Campion isn’t George Clooney. In his (stage) persona he is so believable as a plumber that I hankered with asking him to have a look at my ballcock.
But a lot of men will empathise – and women may be surprised (because we never think men are capable of feeling anything) – when he finally admits that he’s struggling with getting older. It’s frightening. No, it’s bloody terrifying.
Peter, for all his swagger and pretence, is obviously hiding the real reason for his career choice. It could be that he is genuinely being entrepreneurial and simply cashing in on what he does best (could make great TV on Dragon’s Den) but I’m guessing he’s another “typical man.” Tara can’t make him talk either.
Former Harry Potter star Lewis is entirely credible. Christ, I’d hire him. His unwavering eye contact with Joan is so disarming that any middle aged woman would empty her bank account for his administrations.
In one telling scene Joan asks if she can verbally abuse Peter. Moments later, after a bit of encouragement, it is released in a torrent. All the pain, resentment and hurt, everything she should be saying, if only she had the confidence, to Tom, is hurled at her spousal stand-in.
Here are four powerful and compelling performances. The experienced Cusack and Campion work well together, and are the stronger of the two, as an everyday couple struggling with life. But both Lewis and Gedmintas hold their own, he bold and self-assured, she, uncertain and needy.
Unfaithful runs at Found111 until October 8.
Unfaithful probes the breakdown in communication between couples. Is there any way back from lies and deception?