Though the promotional blurb for Fifty Words makes it sound like a cross between a bad rom-com and an episode of Sex and The City, in actual fact, Michael Weller’s play is a highly emotive exposition of the corrosive power of unacknowledged resentment, one which nonetheless bristles with humour, an unflinching portrayal of the emotional and psychological bludgeoning two people are capable of inflicting on each other when engaged in marital warfare.
Simon Kenny’s set is the first indication that trouble is brewing, even before the performance itself starts. The Penzius’s home is too stylish, with its shiny appliances and tasteful knickknacks, too pointedly cosy, complete with an inordinate amount of family portraits in frames: it feels like a grin forced through violently clenched teeth. The patina of suburban happiness is showing signs of wear, through which the reality of Penzius family life peeps. Greg’s toys, for instance, are present but carefully arranged out of the way ~almost as though they have been put on display by parents desperate to demonstrate their pride in their offspring to themselves, rather than having been carelessly strewn around the place by a happy child dashing off to the next adventure. The picture-frames and candles also appear suspiciously fossilized in their ‘proper’ places: looking fondly at the photos or lighting the candles to create a romantic atmosphere is no longer required, as long as the unuttered collusion that there is no cause for alarm in the marital relationship persists.
So it comes as no surprise when trouble does indeed arrive. The precarious balancing act with which the play opens is inevitably shattered, leaving the two protagonists to walk –literally and metaphorically– all over the broken shards left behind. One by one, Adam and Jan’s masks fall: he had an affair; she hates motherhood; he hates her; she loathes him.
A marriage falling apart is never a pretty sight, and this one is no exception. Jan and Adam’s attempts to come to terms with the true reasons behind the betrayal are conspicuously marred by the frantic way each of them tries to snatch the upper hand back from the other, with varying degrees of success. Fifty Words would be an unbearable affair if it wasn’t garlanded with so much genuine, blindsiding humour, which not only relieves the tension on a surface level but also serves as a reminder that (despite their protestations to the contrary) the two people on stage do love each other deeply. Or, more to the point, that they also love each other deeply ~as well as despising each other.
The tremendous undertaking of the cast, who have to repeatedly annihilate each other every night for four consecutive weeks, is carried off with admirable aplomb. Richard Clothier’s Adam is immature, childish, and weak, and he has certainly engaged in some rather questionable behaviour. And yet at no point do you consider apportioning the blame solely to him; such is the humanity and motherless-child-kind-of-hurt Clothier brings to the part. Claire Price’s Jan is a standoffish bundle of petty resentments and small cruelties ~and yet you sympathise with her, for the dreams she abandoned and for her flailing attempts to live up to the role she opted for in their stead.
It is a testament to Weller’s capability as a playwright that, even if in your head you know that neither Adam nor Jan are particularly likeable individuals, in your heart you are with them every step of the way. Their story is so engrossing that, when it draws to its ambiguous close, you feel almost affronted at being asked to depart this world you were allowed to inhabit for just under two hours.