|By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN
Though The End of Longing is, in essence, an enjoyable throwback to the comedies that inundated Broadway in the 60s and 70s, it ticks all the boxes required by today’s audiences both in terms of its contemporary vernacular and the permissive approach to its subject matter. Written by and starring Matthew Perry – Chandler Bing on the long-running TV sitcom Friends – a convenient description of it might be Friends with balls.
Like that famous and much-loved series, Perry’s play (his first) is packed with laugh-out-loud one-liners and, on the whole, appealing characters. Yet the central role he has written for himself is darker, less attractive and has more depth than Chandler or anyone else in that user-friendly phenomenon. For starters, he plays a raging alcoholic photographer called Jack. Self-destructive and physically going to seed, he’s unable to function without at least a half a dozen drinks in him.
His polar opposite and best friend is Joseph (Lloyd Owen), who, though intellectually challenged (he thinks the Magna Carta is a large cart), is a solid, decent, caring bloke on whom he has always relied when booze renders him legless.
At a fashionable bar in a big American city (could be Chicago, Los Angeles or New York) they meet Stevie (Christina Cole) and Stephanie (Jennifer Mudge), bosom buddies who, like Jack and Joseph, are very different in every way. Stephanie is an in-demand, high-priced hooker, while Stevie is a compulsive neurotic employed by a pharmaceutical company specialising in anti-depressants.
How these four very different people bond as a group and mate as couples provides the familiar foundation on which the play is neatly structured. And Perry's variation on the familiar theme of opposites attracting passes the time agreeably enough.
More of a revelation than the play’s content is Perry’s performance as the self-destructive Jack. No stranger himself to alcohol-related problems, Perry is both touching and funny and has two knockout scenes in which his hitherto hidden skills as an actor are impressively demonstrated. The youthful, easy-going charm and the laid-back good looks that characterised his persona on Friends have dramatically morphed into a dissolute, overweight, rather unprepossessing jerk forced to choose between the love of a woman he really cares for – or the love of booze, which he says he cannot live without.
It’s hardly a world-shattering dilemma, but it’s entertainingly explored both in the writing and the performance. Mudge, as the woman in Jack’s life (she also has to make a decision – does she give up her lucrative existence as a prostitute or does she commit her body only to Jack?), is excellent, as are Owen, the nicest, most sympathetic character in the play, and Cole, the girl he falls for, and who, against all the odds and the vast differences in their personalities, falls for him.
Director Lindsay Posner adroitly camouflages some of the play’s more blatant sitcom moments and directs with a conviction that gives the piece a gravitas it might otherwise not have had.
Moving around almost as much as the actors is Anna Fleischle’s set, whose basic framework and effective back projections glide seamlessly from a cocktail bar to a high-rise apartment to a hospital waiting room.
How nice that the West End can boast a brand new play of its own that hasn’t transferred from somewhere else.