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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Almeida Theatre


The title character of Gina Gionfriddo’s play, which premiered in Louisville, Kentucky, prior to an off-Broadway run in 2009, is, according to the author, named after Becky Sharp, the heroine of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. It’s difficult to see much resemblance, though Miss Shaw certainly proves herself a schemer of sorts.
But if it can’t really boast a Miss Sharp, there’s no shortage of sharpness in this swift and savage comedy of 21st century sexual mores and manners. Behind the barbed witticisms and the wounded feelings, the psychological games and the stealthy acts of passive-aggressive blackmail, there’s an essential shallowness to the writing, which eventually reveals itself to be as flimsy as a pop-psychology platitude. The pleasure of the piece – and it turns out to be something of a sado-masochistic pleasure – lies in its zinging wordplay, and in the realisation that there’s a little bit of Becky, with her unattractive, manipulative neediness, in us all.
In fact, though, we’re some way into Peter DuBois’ fast-paced production and Gionfriddo’s tale of intimate nastiness before Becky even makes an appearance. First, we have to meet money-manager Max (David Wilson-Barnes, who originated the role in the United States) and PhD psychology student Suzanna (Anna Madeley), whose relationship is both complex and unorthodox. They’ve known each other from childhood; Max’s parents were toxic, so he was unofficially adopted by Suzanna’s. He’s always carried a torch for her – but thanks to their longstanding, sibling-like closeness, there’s the faintest whiff of the incestuous to a sexual connection between them, despite the fact that there is no blood connection.
To complicate matters further, Suzanna’s mother Susan (Haydn Gwynne) has MS as well as a pretty wide poisonous streak – and, on the death of her husband, loses no time in shacking up with a sticky-fingered redneck half her age. And just to top her anxieties off, Suzanna is confronted with the posthumous revelation that dad wasn’t quite the man she thought he was, and that part of his secret life was a long-term gay affair. With her plans to become a therapist, she’s an over-analytical bundle of nerves at the best of times. Destabilised by family crisis, she’s tremulous and ripe for the plucking by Max – who seizes the moment, but is unwilling to make himself vulnerable by admitting he’d like their brief act of sexual congress to develop into something more permanent.
His reticence has a string of unfortunate consequences. On his advice, Suzanna heads off on a skiing trip where she meets Andrew (Vincent Montuel), whose ostentatious over-concern for others is gratifying to him and inadvertently crippling to them. She marries him, and the pair of them set Max up on a date with Andrew’s flaky friend. Enter Becky Shaw (Daisy Haggard) – the most inappropriate partner for the acerbic, impatient Max imaginable. “Wow. You look like a birthday cake,” he drawls in a tone of weary disgust when she arrives, wearing a frilly cream frock and a goofy, eager grin.
Their date is, inevitably, disastrous – and not just because the small talk stinks: they get held up in a street robbery. Max, with characteristically calculated, cold-blooded opportunism, has sex with her despite the evening’s traumatic events, and even though he despises her. Unfortunately Becky assumes there’s a future for them; and when Max attempts to ignore her, she tightens the emotional thumbscrews by threatening suicide.
It’s very smartly written, with Gionfriddo’s TV credentials evident in her whiplash dialogue (she has notably written for Law & Order). And the cast relishes every drop of cruel cleverness in the power play, juggling witticisms like knives. But without more dramatic meat to slice into, it somehow doesn’t count for much. Sharp this play may be, yet in the end a lack of substance also means a lack of edge.

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