Social invitations in drama should come with a health warning: will the drinks and nibbles be worth the aggravation? Consider Abigail’s Party and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – to say nothing of Macbeth. So when middle-class southerners Oliver and Emily, who have suffered in the recession and decamped to the north of England for cheaper rent, invite their working-class neighbours, Dawn and Alan, round for a get-together, you sense that chit-chat over the olives and wasabi nuts might not run smoothly.
Torben Betts’ sharp, funny play wrings plenty of droll comedy out of the class mismatch of the two couples. Alan arrives late, having been watching an England football match – only to be informed by Emily that “sport is a means of keeping people stupid”. Things go from bad to worse once the conversation turns to art and Alan asks Emily to give her opinion of his paintings of his beloved cat (an offstage character that ends up playing a crucial role). Emily, who believes in being honest, tells him the truth.
It’s a state-of-the-nation play and as such is packed with thorny issues. It suffers from being too polarised, with each couple playing into the sort of clichéd image that the other might have of them. Emily in particular, who is fiercely leftwing, deadly earnest and permanently angry, is hard to swallow. But under the cover of comedy it considers serious and significant questions – patriotism, the real impact of the recent recession, the difficulties of stepping outside your class and cultural comfort zone, the way personal experiences interact with political attitudes. The painful social comedy becomes darker in the second act, when the personal issues that have been raised in the first half come to a head. Betts stealthily shifts the mood and Ellie Jones’s witty production shifts with the play to become surprisingly moving.
Fine performances find the pain beneath the initial parody. Darren Strange’s squirming woolly liberal Oliver is very funny as he tries in vain to keep the peace; Daniel Copeland, all cheerful bluster as Alan, conveys a crippling sense of his own shortcomings; Laura Howard, as Emily, suggests that, beneath all the starchy opinions is a very unhappy woman; and Samantha Seager is excellent as Dawn, revealing the fear beneath her bright, gaudy appearance.