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MUSWELL HILL – White Bear Theatre, London.

Muswell Hill, The White Bear TheatreTorben Betts’s pithy comedy drama Muswell Hill is engagingly performed, impressively directed and reveals both the grotesque and endearing aspects of the lives of young middle class Londoners. It is predictable in places, a bit too much time is spent setting up jokes and too little spent developing the characters, and the real thought-provoking moments only come towards the end of the play. However, it is a slick and entertaining example of a contemporary drama.

The play is set immediately after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and clever set design makes it appear that the Muswell Hill kitchen is superimposed over the ruins of a Haitian house so that Haiti is literally, as well as metaphorically, always in the background. Jess (Annabel Bates), the host of the dinner party which drives the plot, comments on Haiti more than any other character, but her concern seems largely put on, which becomes a source of comedy. Betts mocks other habits of his characters as well: like many of us, they are all addicted to checking their e-mails and phones, so much so that they’ll stop mid-sentence to response to a bleep. Although their foibles are made fun of, Betts’s play is largely sympathetic to the characters and their cluelessness is paradoxically both irritating and endearing.

The performances and direction are smooth, naturalistic and feel spontaneous. The humour is sharp, cynical and well delivered. Nicole Abraham and Gregory Cox, who play Jess’s sister Annie and her somewhat unsuitable fiancé Tony, have particularly commendable comic timing. Tony’s uptalk and frequent use of ‘man’, which he hopes makes him seem younger than he is, is genuinely hilarious. However, the dialogue is a bit predictable, and nothing especially profound is expressed.

The play becomes more gripping in the second act. Deeper aspects of the characters are slowly revealed, they begin to appear more complex and less stereotypical. Their problems are not just eye-roll worthy gripes of the bourgeoisie. However, this character exploration could have started a lot earlier. With it all in the second act, it feels a bit rushed.

The most memorable moment comes at the very end when Jess tells her husband to accept that he is just an ‘ordinary person’. Her remark could be interpreted as a stinging criticism or as an expression of her own true desire: an impersonal, superficial life is what she really wants, perhaps because it is easier. Betts pairs this moment with a parable about compassion, the message seems to be that real compassion requires a bit of madness. If wanting an easy life is the definition of sanity, then maybe this is true. It would also make Jess the most sane of the characters, but the least compassionate.

This is an interesting thought to leave the audience with, it is just a shame that the deeper character development and more provocative dialogue is only squeezed in at the end. Overall, Muswell Hill is just short of excellent, but still a witty and entertaining play.

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Reviewed 15/8/14

By Andrea White

12th – 31st August 2014
White Bear Theatre, London, SE11.

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