FringeReview UK 2018
Michael Longhurst directs this UK premiere of Amy Herzog’s 2011 play. Tom Scutt’s lovingly-detailed apartment shifts with a few diurnal swings in Natasha Chivers’ lighting. The sovereign team of Ben and Max Ringham envelop things with music, and dramatic thwunks of thriller sound. Till February 3rd.
Belleville is one spooky word for Paris. It’s at once the quarter a young ex-pat couple inhabit, and edgily close to a famed New York psychiatric hospital, Bellevue.
Amy Herzog’s one of the most exciting super-naturalist dramatists emerging in the U. S, over the past decade. On the basis of this 2011 play she’s also the most incisive dissector of character, devastating in her tenderness as she reveals chasms and deceit.
Michael Longhurst directs this UK premiere with the meticulous unfolding we’re getting used to in this generation of playwrights. Herzog’s not quite like her mentor Richard Nelson, nor indeed Annie Baker with their real-time spooling-out of moments. She cuts and compresses more conventionally too, but the strengths of this new verismo combine with a sudden dropping-out of floors where we thought a person was.
Tom Scutt’s lovingly-detailed apartment angled from front entrance and steps to a living room with bathroom and bedroom doors and a balcon giving onto grey December Paris or night completes the shudder of chic dreariness – there’s a few diurnal swings as Natasha Chivers’ lighting negotiates some tricky pickings-out of people in gloaming or darkly-lit in. Much happens on the sofa. The sovereign team of Ben and Max Ringham envelop things with American-in-Paris-feel music, dramatic thwunks of thriller sound at climaxes just about avoiding movie-level. There’s one point when some bleached desolation is enhanced by this, though in the Donmar less sonics is more.
A late-twenties American couple are celebrating Christmas and Abby’s brought in a huge shop. Zack, who works as a doctor at Médicin San Frontiers is a little concerned at this: his even younger landlord Alioune needs rent. Abby’s spent it. Zack doesn’t want to tell her, because Abby’s come off medication for mood-swings. Imogen Poots catches the on-wing wobble of Abby’s character to a frightening degree. Her performance is quietly incandescent, then explodes.
Zack’s far more in control when it comes to managing Abby’s sudden volte-faces and panic. Her sister’s giving birth and their father’s anxiously updating, filtered by nervily-controlling Zack, terrified Abby will flip. Her mother had died at a crucial time, family’s both a source of terror and comfort. When Abby smashes her toe a rare tenderness throbs through the tendons: Zack can do toes; he’s a doctor. James Norton captures Zack’s shudder under the apparent coping with a winsome vulnerability that opens chasms.
Herzog’s good too at moving her characters through a social prism, or indeed prison so any return from off-stage is charged with even more of what’s already bugging them. Abby in particular so wants those around to love her you see the obliviousness in the way she offers alcohol or Christmas cookies to Alioune as kookily sweet, then disquieting. Not that Zack’s been holding back on desperate charm. Herzog’s unerringly precise: Americans want to colonize with kindness in a world now rejecting it.
Alioune for example has been making rent concessions but they’re wearing thin. Zack’s bounced him and Alioune’s uncle no longer trusts Alioune. It’s a world of shame and reputation Zack only dimly grasps. Alioune‘s wife Amina hovers judgmentally, anxious over their child. Malachi Kirby poises his character’s disdain and dignity with a resigned indulgence. Even though he’s mistaken charm for friendship he’s honourable as well as pragmatic. Faith Aalbi funnels quiet fury and an ultimate detachment: it’s like the final unhooking from well-meaning imperialists, now revealed as the dependents. Paris has flipped over the dreamers, the demography’s shifted.
On a bonding foursome date out Abby loses the plot – and she’s already lost a dress. One of the knots twists round her throwing off her slinky black number because she thinks Zack’s insecure about the advances of an off-stage friend. She she dons a hoodie. Then apparently dances on the table. That’s only after we’ve seen the results.
To reveal more at this point might spoil the thriller-like nature of Herzog’s construction, with her sassy off-the-tongue dialogue that’s beautifully-crafted for the characters involved. It’s all highly believable except one action that left me thinking we needed more than the hundred minutes, or a different ending. Its as if Herzog’s wound up her tension so well she doesn’t quite trust a naturalistic resolve. Poots and Norton achieve a quivering fright and tenderness that alone make this a must-see. but if a touch incredible in one choice, it shows Herzog’s ability to combine the new post-naturalism with a rare character-driven ride to apotheosis, recalling dramas more ancient and elemental.