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FringeReview UK 2023

Low Down

Mates in Chelsea is definitely worth seeing, and apart from adaptations surely the best thing this writer’s produced in a decade.

One feels Mullarkey’s almost nostalgic about his previous bloody coups in The Wolf From the Door, and Pity. Here’s there’s less caricature, more nuance, which flickers in his sprawling, picaresque Saint George and the Dragon.

Written by Rory Mullarkey, Directed by Sam Pritchard, Designed by Milla Clarke, Lighting Design Natasha Chivers, Sound Designer Christopher Shutt, Movement Director Malik Nashad Sharpe

Assistant Director Aneesha Srinivasan, Dialect Coach Penny Dyer, Stage Manager Chris Peterson, DSM Julia Sillinger,

ASM Tash Savidge, Stage Management Work Placement Julia Wilkens, Show Crew Oscar Sale,

Sound Operator Florence Hand,  Dressers Alex Papachristou-Cox & Milla Tikkanen, Alterations Anna Barcock, Special Effects Erin Jacques, Wigs Supervisor Carole Hancock, Set Buit Foorprints Scenery, Artist Support Artistic Wellbeing Company

Till December 16th



Though there’s not a hint of football, perhaps it’s a Chelsea team chant: ‘Have You Eaten All Your Mates?’ that lends the title to Rory Mullarkey’s latest premiere Mates in Chelsea directed by Sam Pritchard at the Royal Court till December 16th.

Unusually for Mullarkey there’s less class genocide, let alone cannibalism in what might be his finest play since his serious first one, Cannibals – which also exploited his fluency in Russian, again etched in here. Though we do start and end with a singing of the Soviet National Anthem as is proper.

One feels Mullarkey’s almost nostalgic about his previous bloody coups in The Wolf From the Door, and Pity. Here’s there’s less caricature, more nuance, which flickers in his sprawling, picaresque Saint George and the Dragon.

But since that first play Mullarkey’s drawn back, won’t explore the powerful implications of oppression and class war waged – all too successfully – by the powerful. He tries laughing his way to revolution, as if to get it under the censor. It’s all harmless he suggests, but you get the message. It isn’t, and we won’t if you neuter it into cuddly hipsterdom.

Here there’s a difference. By taking Wilde (and behind him Boucicault) as one model, Mullarkey succeeds in reconciling to a degree his revolutionary critique self-sabotaged by wrenches into comedy. Even if it does lead to certain acts of violence. And much of the play’s more solidly founded than his normal panto scenes and occasionally striking images (at their finest in his Oresteia at the Globe in 2015). Even if you feel he’s gatecrashing Polly Stenham’s Bohemia while tripping on shrooms.

Instead of the WI or jets massacring the ungrateful rich (or Tesco managers) we have Lenin-worshipper Mrs Hanratty (Amy Booth-Street). She’s the ex-Oxford-Scout bedmaker of Theodore ‘Tug’ Bungay (Laurie Kynaston) singing and whipping up fantastic cakes or eloquent apologies to Tug’s long-suffering fiancée Finty Crossbell (Natalie Dew). Who continues a seafood theme with scornful penis jokes.

That’s because 30-year-old Tug’s too busy sunbedding himself in his bijou Chelsea flat. “But I do have a job. I’m a professional viscount.” Unhappily his high-living on most of the world’s crustacea has imploded his 1,000-year inheritance and mother Agrippina (Fenella Woolgar) arrives to announce his obscure Northumberland castle will have to be sold as they’re broke.

Cue not only Finty but Charlton Thrupp (George Fouracres) whose performance is outstanding, even amongst this hard-working, first-rate cast. Tug’s BFF strikes disguises round the globe and can be hoiked out of Afghanistan, he claims, by RAF mates with Chinooks.

An incompetent Sandy Arbuthnot out of a Buchan thriller he’s determined to mimic the Russian oligarch Oleg Mikhailovich Govorov (Philipp Mogilnitskly, bringing a sudden shaft of realism) due to arrive and purchase the pile. Charlton will avert this. Even Tug realises he might be a disaster. But he and others underestimate Charlton.

Apart from a delicious one-liner on the Evening Standard Theatre awards, there’s numb silence on Russia’s oligarchs, let alone Russia. The play’s very pre-2022; perhaps everyone (especially cash-strapped political parties) hopes apathy will return.

Cue scene-change, four Govorovs and Agrippina’s personal accountant Simone Montesquieu (Karina Fernandez, protective, sharp and amorous by turns) with whom we finally see a blossoming relationship (never a Mullarkey standard).

Milla Clarke’s tall spiral-staircase split-level flat is a thing of dazzling depth and simplicity, yet the castle almost upstages it, twice over. What does is down to Erin Jacques’ special effects, and some fine lighting by Natasha Chivers and Christopher Shutt’s sound envelope put to stunning use at the climax. Indeed much of what’s strong about this play and production comes in the second and third acts after the interval.

Kynaston’s hapless self-pitying whine is tastefully muted. Never overdone it suits Tug, with that light scorn of privilege Mullarkey would have encountered at Cambridge. It’s too lightly touched in though, more a whimper compared to the way Posh swaggers for instance. Kynaston’s excellent throughout despite not having quite enough to pluck out, except at the end.

Nevertheless there’s several opportunities to explore something more than caricature. Woolgar’s final speech to Kynaston’s larky Tug is affecting, as is Dew’s continual exasperation. Next to Fouracres the other big performance is Booth-Steel’s cheerfully Leninist Hanratty who throws off lines like: “I did a brief first-aid course when I ran with the Baader-Meinhof boys back in the eighties, so I know a fatal gunshot wound when I see one.” Never mind all that had ended by 1975, it’s part of Mullarkey’s loose-limbed picaresque charm, and in the context is affecting.

Fouracres has one set-speech – or backstory as Charlton protests – designed round a scene-change, involving Lenin, some bullies, a boy and strawberry ice-cream. This again could have been designed for this actor, suggesting a deeper comedic guile, a genuine sliver of Russia (Mularkey studied there after reading Russian) that Mullarkey turns to panto. As “gay as the sun” Charlton tells Finty later, he can still pull at least three surprises. The final scene though haunts with its charm and Kynaston – and Mullarkey – gesture at something larger than the play contains.

 Mates in Chelsea is definitely worth seeing, and apart from adaptations surely the best thing this writer’s produced in a decade. Mullarkey clearly attracts directors and theatres for the potential seen in Cannibals, for being the one high-profile playwright currently even addressing the overthrow of ancient regimes. It’s as if they’re desperately hoping for something he’s not prepared to deliver. Even to smuggle it in under government surveillance.

Every time a Mullarkey work premieres, it’s a given it’ll be witty, inventive, charming, visually striking: the work of a born theatre writer. Yet the gifts scatter, often into impossible massacres: shy of even their satiric power.

If Mullarkey often misses the mark with plays destined for oblivion, his commissioning luck has held. With Vicky Featherstone’s departure – Mullarkey’s her last commissioned work for the Court – that could change. At just 36, it’s past time for Mullarkey, like Tug, to get serious with his gifts. After ten years in this hybrid vein, he should try either sheer comedy, or listen to his obsessions. The time for comedic revolutionaries, like professional viscounts, is past.