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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE PRIORY
at the Royal Court

WHERE FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION
By JOHN NATHAN

  Ph: Johann Persson

Michael Wynne’s new comedy dabbles with genres. What begins as an old-fashioned country house thriller morphs into something closer to old-fashioned British farce. But despite the jokes about psychopathic murderers on the loose and the frantic comings and goings through the many doors on Robert Innes Hopkins’ wood-paneled set, The Priory is neither thriller nor farce. What it wants at heart is to be a serious play.
 
The play's title brings to mind Britain’s most famous drug rehab clinic of the same name. But the setting is the large living room of an isolated rural holiday home that was once a priory and is now said to be haunted by the spirit of a monk.
 
It is New Years Eve and writer Kate has booked the place to draw a line under a bad year. Her boyfriend left her, she had a miscarriage, and her mother died. This unhappy recent past, however, is revealed only after the arrival of Kate’s high-achieving thirty-something friends – gay architect Daniel, TV producer Rebecca, her handsome actor husband Carl, travel journalist Ben and the odd one out in this relentlessly middle class group, Ben’s working class fiancé Laura, who he met just 24 hours previously.
 
Jeremy Herrin’s production is perfectly poised, it seems, for a comedy of embarrassing bad manners with cocaine trips to and from the bathroom, Ben and Laura’s indiscreet necking sessions, bickering between Carl and Rebecca, and the unexpected arrival of Adam, Daniel’s teenage Internet date from the local village.
 
But what really interests Wynne is the subject that for the last two years has become meat and drink at the Royal Court – the condition of England’s middle classes.
 
The glue that binds this unhappy lot is not love but success. It’s a theme explored mainly in just one scene where Carl admits to Kate that his acting career has hit the rocks and Kate confides to Carl that her book has been turned down by publishers. Failure is unacceptable in this group, you see. Which is why Daniel has kept quiet about not being responsible for London’s tallest building. Though he did design the door handles. “Maybe it should be all right to fail,” Kate ponders.
 
That everyone else’s unhappiness is rooted in the same misplaced values is only implied. And Wynne doesn’t bother to flesh out his other characters much beyond some off-the-shelf personalities. Rachael Stirling’s haughty Rebecca is successful, therefore nasty; Rupert Penry-Jones’ Carl is nice, therefore cowardly. Full marks then to Charlotte Riley. Although her Laura is working class, therefore stupid (wouldn’t it have been more interesting if she’d emerged as the most intelligent one?) Riley still manages to move her character and the play from broad comedy to real tragedy.
 
What this evening rather too heavily relies on is the entertainment value of well brought up people behaving badly. When uncomfortable truths are exposed, so is a particular brand of middle class cruelty with some eye-watering insults.
 
There are none of the stunning insights of the Court’s recent hits Enron and Jerusalem, both of which have more to say about the human condition as underlying themes. But for anyone looking for cynicism and an antidote to seasonal good will and cheer, The Priory serves up some effective and fun therapy. 
 


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