Ian is eighteen years old but conducts himself with the air of one who’s lived longer and experienced more of the world. He’s all talk, an adolescent raconteur, a verbal volcano in a herringbone tank top and National Health spectacles. But beneath the precocity, the intellectual self-confidence, he’s manipulative and emotionally frozen, incapable of gauging the consequences of his behaviour on others.
Christopher Hampton’s debut play was written in 1964 when he was also just eighteen. The play was picked up by the agent Peggy Ramsey and ended up being staged by the Royal Court when Hampton was still only twenty. Hampton’s writing is very astute about what it is to be young and arrogant and confident of your own charisma but also utterly wrapped up in your own wants. Yet, for all its assurance, the play also shares some of the characteristics of its young lead: it has a tendency to show off and displays a taste for melodrama.
The character of Ian, the public school educated orphan lusting after his flatmate Jimmy, is a particularly difficult one to pull off. His behaviour at times is vile and brattish; he becomes particularly waspish when faced with the girl Jimmy has a bit of a thing for, his attitude tipping towards the misogynistic, and he seems to really relish pushing people’s buttons until they lose their tempers. But Harry Melling nails it. While he’s convincingly obnoxious and hateful, he’s also something of a charmer, a man of calculated attack. He’s always ‘on’, always playing to an audience, and even when a frustrated Jimmy leaves him to his own devices, he can’t help but provide a running commentary as he pootles round his empty bedsit. At times you want to slap his face, hard and repeatedly, at times you marvel at his chutzpah; he’s like a teenage version of Butley (a play it predates), Simon Gray’s self-sabotaging academic who takes great pains to push away the people foolish enough to care about him. Melling can be over-mannered as an actor – he was the shrillest thing on stage in Deborah Warner’s production of The School for Scandal, no easy task – but under Blanche McIntyre’s direction this is not the case. As Ian, he is, as McIntyre admits, an “utter fucker” at times, but he’s also completely compelling.
McIntyre nimbly negotiates the play’s line between humour and pathos. Her production is rooted very much in a particular time with Nicky Bunch’s detailed set recreating the boys’ 1960s bedsit, complete with Formica foldaway table, a buckled mustard-coloured sofa and a floral curtain concealing the kitchenette. While Ian’s rather too rapid seduction of Jimmy’s elegant mother isn’t entirely convincing, the openness of his feelings for Jimmy and the seeming easiness of his sexuality still feels exciting, especially given the era in which it’s set.
The final scene doesn’t quite deliver the emotional kick for which it seems designed; it feels far too neat and predictable a way to tie things up, the result of a young writer looking for a convenient escape route. But this doesn’t overshadow the production’s many strengths and the pleasing complexity of the central character, a role to which Melling brings the intensity it deserves. Sam Swainsbury, as Jimmy, the object of Ian’s attentions, provides a cool, easy-going and necessary counterpoint to Melling’s energy. And, as Jimmy’s mother, Mrs Evans, Abigail Cruttendan gracefully conveys a deep reservoir of suburban sadness and longing under her smartly-tailored coat and white gloves.