Suburban life can be seen as an exercise in comparison, where the minute permutations of personality that impress themselves on or eat away at the tidy repeated format of brick house, trim lawn and inhabited garage are pressed up against other, with some found wanting. Sue Mayes’ beautifully designed photo-printed backdrop of two near-identical Englishman’s castles, mirrored symmetrically in the divide of the garden wall, is reflected in a tale that sees the pursuit of conformity lead to wilder and wilder eccentricities, like dripping water forming stalactites; laughter is the only response to these twin narratives of socially-inflicted torture.
Suburbia is often understood through its women – Stepford Wives, Wysteria Drive, Hyacinth Bucket – but here, the focus is on the impact of a magnetically masculine personality on a prissy, feminised world. Tim, played with nervy, unlikeable energy by Alan Francis, is a newcomer to the cul-de-sac, an exile from Streatham; through acquaintance with his neighbour Nigel (Mike Hayley) he becomes initiated into its bizarre social climate, manipulated by the unseen hands of a small-town Machiavelli, Tony Devereux. Their interactions are interspersed with appointments with the lugubrious Dr Cole – the brilliantly nasty Julian Dutton – who ignores their polite attempts to preserve the socially acceptable medical decorum of euphemism, diagnosis and prescription in favour of Freudian, Pavlovian explorations into their sexual selves.
The first play by stand-up comedian Matthew Osborn, the script’s heritage in the comedy scene is clear in its sketch show-like structure, and focus on character comedy; neat, self-contained scenes of ascending horror each accelerate to their climax in layers of one-liners and surreal revelations.
This neatness makes for a satisfyingly slick finish, but effaces the other side of suburban comedy, that of crippling social embarassment and awkwardness; instead, the characters zip along on clearly defined narrative arcs, their trajectories crossing at highs of nervy emotion, rather than lows of deep, wordless discomfiture and alienation. A cast of three, playing three roles, leaves a host of characters to the imagination in a way that is rare and freeing, letting us see the rest of the cul-de-sac through these increasingly blighted perspectives, in which wives are wayward appendages, not fearsome matriarchs, and daughters are tokens of prestige to be bartered with.
What rescues this play from the land of the TV sitcom is its willingness to push deeper into uncomfortable territory, to recognise that the cul-de-sac is an oasis-cum-cesspit surrounded by everything it isn’t, and thus despises. Nigel’s Daily Mail-inspired wet dreams of vigilante violence are masterpieces of impotent anger, rootless in a polite land of barbecues, privet hedges and bridge parties at seven. Heartlessly slick, this play is still at heart serious, angry with the suburbia it animates and destroys; quite a feat for a play that teases, tempts and torments you into laughter at every turn.