Muswell Hill – Review

Muswell Hill. Photos by Boris Mitkov.
Jack Johns and Annabel Bates in Muswell Hill. Photos by Boris Mitkov.

Does anyone still do dinner parties? You know the type, slaving over a Nigella recipe for most of the day, freaking out about what to wear, and then forcing pleasantries with people you’d rather poison.

Playwright Torben Betts has obviously been scarred by the dinner party ordeal and uses the experience as fodder for his work.

In his last two plays – Muswell Hill and Invincible – the action takes place during dinner parties from hell.

The acclaimed Invincible transferred to St James Theatre, in central London, earlier this summer, and was a delicious treat. A dark comedy about the north-south divide.

Muswell Hill has just been revived by the Two Sheds Theatre Company at the White Bear Theatre, Kennington, and it’s a more sombre comedy of awkwardness and faux pas.

We’re in January 2010 and an earthquake has just killed thousands in Haiti.

The force of the blast has hit the trendy London apartment of accountant Jess and her writer-husband Mat (hence the intriguing set designed by Nancy Surman) and the effect is devastating.

News of the catastrophe fills the news channels but the couple pay it scant regard – just the occasional sympathetic mention in-between talk of the dinner party, the menu and her diet.

But just as the doorbell rings for the arrival of the first guest Mat launches an aftershock and its resonance is felt throughout the play.

This is the ultimate dinner party horror. Why would you invite these people into your home?

There are anal and mentally unstable Simon is paranoid delusional; The morose, sometime vegetarian, cancer nurse Karen has verbal diarrhoea; Damaged alcoholic Annie, 23, who, unlike her posh sister Jess, unaccountably talks in that strange London patois; and Tony, her (married) 60-year-old stage director boyfriend.

Nicole Abraham and Alastair Natkiel in Muswell Hill.
Nicole Abraham and Alastair Natkiel.

Roger Mortimer-Smith has set the action in the couple’s kitchen where inevitably everyone ends up.

Mat (Jack Johns), rather anti-socially, spends most of the night checking his emails on his laptop, while Jess (Annabel Bates) scowls and fills the dishwasher.

Both seethe with resentment and anger but for hugely different reasons.

It’s left to the four guests to entertain the audience waging unarmed verbal combat.

Betts throws in a huge political argument about our responsibility to help others. How much do we care about a tragedy unfolding half-way around the world when we have our own domestic dilemmas?

And there’s a big question thrown up about gender equality.

Jess, whose salary pays for their luxury lifestyle, says she’s tired of footing every bill while her husband stays at home trying to write the definitive novel.

Isn’t that what we’ve been fighting for? You can’t bleat about it now, girl.

One moral argument after another is thrown up and it’s enough to make everyone reach for the vino.

All six characters are facing their own human catastrophes with a feeling of helplessness.

It’s an engrossing and absorbing drama where we can all identify with either the situation or the people involved.

Alastair Natkiel’s Simon is unpredictable and wildly emotional. Karen (Fiona Rodrigo) calls him a freak and he admits to being a loner.

You had to worry when Simon began waving a carving knife around – especially sitting so close to the stage.

Nicole Abraham was the image of vulnerability, tottering around on vertiginous heels and desperately clinging to Tony as a father figure in her life.

Meanwhile Gregory Cox, as the lecherous Tony, was caught in his own mid-life crisis.

They were all well-drawn and familiar figures but none with which you could sympathise with. I’d have been tempted to put something in their monkfish stew.

The excellent and eminently watchable Muswell Hill plays at The White Bear Theatre, Kennington Park Road, until August 31.

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