Will, Neil and Matt are three middle-class thirty-somethings on a stag weekend in Iceland. After two days in Reykjavík, they finally end up at Neil’s summer house in the middle of nowhere where they all jump straight into the hot-tub to continue the party. It’s very cold, it’s very dark and they are very, very drunk. This is their final chance to be young and reckless together as a world of wives and nappies beckons.
Ostensibly a play about masculinity, drinking rituals and Vikings, The Summer House is more acutely a wonderful homage to male bonding. As befitting any stag do, there is a fair amount of singing, dancing and competitive carnage but what gives the production a real sense of heart is that, beneath the drunken revelry, it never strays far from themes of honesty, compassion and companionship.
The Summer House’s standout scenes are those in the hot-tub as the three chat casually about friends new and old, receding hairlines and having kids (“it’s like carrying some heavy shopping, all the time”), whilst negotiating for underwater leg-room in some beautifully well-observed humour about male relationships. The three performers, Will Adamsdale, Neil Haigh and Matthew Steer, are all very engaging, warm, believable and incredibly likeable and their interaction makes for a very subtle, enjoyable and thoroughly absorbing first half. Towards the interval as the booze continues to flow as freely as the water in the tub, relationships come under more and more scrutiny until a dramatic twist pulls the rug out from under everyone’s feet.
Suddenly the measured pace of things turns to hysteria and the second half becomes a frantic mash of warning flares, icy lake swimming, smashed windows, Northern Lights, waterfalls of cash, earth tremors, mobster threats and livestock wearing three-piece-suits. Despite the increasingly ridiculous nature of the scenarios, the audience remains invested in these characters. Yet the production does its best to test these boundaries, to see how much it can get away with, and although it does go too far on occasion, devolving almost into pantomime levels of silliness, it is undeniably good fun to watch.
The Summer House is a devised piece by the production’s three actors and its director and the very open and honest nature of the characters is one of the great virtues of this kind of theatre making. However this process has also resulted in an excess of energy and story ideas and at times it does seem like they ended up simply keeping everything in. Although the production is enjoyable, at over two hours it’s far too long and would benefit from being leaner, sharper and therefore punchier.
The main action is permeated with a series of mini sketches which recite and re-enact various elements of Viking folklore and history. Although these are well executed they feel superfluous and while you could argue that they serve to contrast ideas of masculinity across time, the audience doesn’t really gain much insight from them.
The staging is a little uneven too. The central space is essentially very bare, levels of decking and plastic chairs are all they need to effectively create the summer house and hot-tub, and while some scenes are often just as minimal, others come with a huge array of extravagant props and sound-cues, most of the time unnecessary (like the over-exuberant use of a leaf-blower). Also, the use of mime and live sound-effects is very inconsistent. Again, it just feels as if the director should have been more ruthless; it is hard for the audience to keep up with the constantly shifting performance styles.
This is making the show sound much harder work that it is; despite its flaws, The Summer House is a greatly enjoyable piece bolstered by the three very absorbing, likeable and warm performances.