Doug Lucie’s play was first staged in 1982, when the Brixton Riots were still fresh in the memory. Though a hit at the time, Defibrillator’s revival is its first for more than thirty years.
Stephanie Williams’s set is an expertly rendered 1981 living room-kitchen, complete with novelty telephone and endless bottles of spirits. Against this backdrop Lucie’s characters, a group of blisteringly self-obsessed ex-Oxford twenty-somethings dress up and get drunk and bicker. This is the 1980s as inheritor to the 1920s: these people are pointless, self-destructive, with a veneer of glamour that hides bottomless wastes of self-loathing. Still, they’re having a good time, or think they are, until the member of the group who most resembles a human being rocks things to their very foundations by getting – shock, horror – a working class boyfriend, Tone, who grew up on a council estate but is also educated – and angry, angry, angry.
At first there’s something quite cathartic about watching a boy from a Battersea council estate shout at terrible people, though this excitement soon wears off. Tone, though largely played quite creditably by Callum Turner, is pretty relentless and a lot of the politics feels heavy-handed. The whole thing, in fact, is painted with a very thick brush, and even though Tone talks a lot, it’s hard to get much sense of his character – of the personal in the political. This is a shame, because using the play’s one working class character as little more than a plot device with which to explore the emotions of its wealthier characters seems to belie Lucie’s liberal aspirations in writing such a play.
Luckily, the central thread of Hard Feelings is actually the devolution and death of the friendship between Viv – who has everything but is prone to fits of despair and a desperation to control, never letting her friends forget that it is her parents who own this house – and Jane, as ex-Oxford as the rest of them but training to be a solicitor instead of relying on mummy and daddy, with an angry working class journalist for a boyfriend. It is in the scenes of seething tension, love and hate between these two characters that the production really comes to life, elevated as it is by two excellent performances.
As Viv, always half-drunk and cleverer than she lets on, Isabella Laughland is brittle and cruel and utterly laid bare, while Zora Bishop brings huge depth and likeability to a character that could, in lesser hands, have been a little bland. They have generally strong support from the young ensemble, with a very funny performance from Jesse Fox as the impossibly vapid Rusty, and although Margaret Clunie occasionally misses beats as Annie, she also brings much-needed comic relief, seemingly having made the decision to play her as a young Patsy from Ab Fab, with endless depths of unthinking cruelty. Meanwhile, ‘comedy northerner’ Baz feels like such an outdated character, lazily written, and you can’t help feeling Nick Blakeley has been given an unfair hand – but he makes as much of it as could probably be made.
In spite of certain slapdash moments, the conceit of the first half is gripping, as the gentrified house these young, monied people inhabit becomes surrounded by the slowly growing Brixton riots – an inevitable eruption that most of them fail to understand because they do not read the papers. Unfortunately, having set up this quite remarkable hotbed of tension in the first half, as a friendship group twists and turns upon itself, Lucie simply does not know what to do with it after the interval, and spends much of it re-treading ground he trod better in the first. Plus, the riots and their causes seem to largely disappear as themes from the play’s second half, and the play seems to lack drive without them.
Thanks to two excellent performances and some decent direction from James Hillier, Hard Feelings is an enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying look at the failure of wealthy young people to concern themselves much with people who are not like them. Its politics are still relevant, but these themes have been conveyed better elsewhere since 1982, and this feels like a play with surprisingly little to offer in 2013.