These two new plays, performed back-to-back in a double bill at the Pleasance Theatre, have little connecting them except that both were written for the Old Vic New Voices TS Eliot US/UK Exchange, which is an exciting opportunity for new writing to be shown in the USA. But that’s not a bar to enjoyment – both are clever and well-written, although they could do with a little streamlining.
It’s very difficult to look at People Like Us and Happy Never After together: there really is very little to compare between the two, People Like Us being a class comedy and Happy Never After a relationship drama. However, placing the pieces together like this does offer a pleasantly variable evening with plenty to enjoy.
Opener People Like Us is a lovely way to begin, with a collection of disagreeable characters arguing about what to do with a ramshackle country manor. It’s jointly owned by Clemmy (Sammy Kissin) and Josh (George Taylor) after the death of their parents, and while she’s wearing herself to the bone maintaining the place, Josh uses it as a vacation home – so when she decides to sell, tensions already start to rise. This, combined with Clemmy’s gauche, philandering husband Tom (Nicholas Banks), everyone’s attempts at being polite and the inevitable class conflict between Josh’s new girlfriend Sally (Leah Brotherhead) and the others makes for a tense, taut and hilarious little piece.
Set in the crumbling mansion, Gabriella Slade’s set design is a delightful collection of antique bric-a-brac that perfectly evokes the smaller side-kitchen of a mothballed mansion, despite being squeezed into the smaller stage space at the Pleasance. It’s all very professionally put together, and performances are strong, but the script needs fine-tuning – elements such as Tom’s philandering and the details of Josh and Sally’s relationship don’t feel fully-fledged yet, and, in the case of the ‘seduction’ attempt, feel unrealistic and tacked on. Gossip in the bar after the show revealed that this may be a smaller extract of a longer piece, which would make sense, but it already runs at a good 50 minutes, and I can’t imagine where the plot would further develop. With Jake Brunger’s lines and characterisations witty, snappy and very funny, it seems a shame to complicate it further.
Happy Never After, on the other hand, is a little thinner on the ground: it’s the classic relationship drama of boy and girl moving in together and struggling with life’s problems. The two lead performances are truthful and strong, but there’s little that is really original about it. There’s nothing wrong with a retelling of a classic story, but the device of quickly jumping forward through time to show the changes in a relationship, especially in light of new pieces such as Constellations, could do with a fresh twist.
That’s not to say that this isn’t a powerful, well-written short play: Jessica Ellis and Liam Mansfield do a wonderful job as Jen and Neil, and Hannah Rodger’s script is very well-observed and funny, as well as packing a rather hefty wallop during Jen’s potential illness and the resulting issues between her and Neil. It’s very touchingly real, and the Ginger had tears in her eyes by the end, but I felt like I was hanging on for a point when the piece would shift into the unexpected.
Again, the production is very slick, with contemporary music used well to move scenes along and a number of nice effects (including a rather lovely helium balloon in a box) to move us through time effectively, although this wasn’t as detailed as it could have been. For example, a big fuss is made of the shared bulletin board, and reference is made to how the couple have stopped “doing things” in relation to the board, but little details are missing here: nothing actually seems to have changed on the board itself.
Although both pieces have little in common, they do have very similar traits: the performers are universally strong, the production is professional and the writing is to a very high standard, but the plot arcs aren’t right – either too muddled or too staid. They do work surprisingly well together as an evening’s entertainment, and there’s plenty to praise: what really interests me is where these writers, this talented cast and this production company go from here.