I went up to Sheffield the other week to see the Crucible production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and amidst the bomb blasting, eye sucking and intimate violence there was a moment so what-the-fuck shocking that I must have blanked it out when I last read the script. It happens about half way through. Brace yourself: a hotel room telephone rings and tabloid hack Ian reaches over the bed, picks it up and answers, “Hello?” – then starts filing copy. By dictation. What jarred, of course, was the sudden and obvious datedness – a seeming anachronism in a play that feels like it could have been written in and for the age of iPhones. Kane’s 1995 staging of the simultaneous proximity and distance of abject horror and conflict to an English domestic scene seemed to reflect today’s fragmented, franchised war that interrupts daily routines unexpectedly, its very existence both accepted and denied.
I had a shorter journey to make last week for Torben Betts’ Muswell Hill at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park – from Muswell Hill broadway in fact, where I hopped on the W7. Nancy Surman’s design for the play seems to take its visual cues from Blasted‘s overlaying of mass destruction with conventional, literally kitchen-sink stagecraft; her set, a minimalist wooden floored apartment with sleek kitchen units and towering bar stools, is bordered by concrete rubble that’s stacked at the corners and strewn with domestic debris: electrical cables, planks of wood, a pink flipflop. Betts’ play is set in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but takes place at a North London dinner party – conversations about mortgages and will-they-won’t-they moments between lonely single guests are interrupted by “have you seen the news?” reminders of the far-off carnage.
But for all its bang up to date-ness, Muswell Hill feels like it was written in the 70’s – essentially, it’s Abigail’s Party if Beverley had a drama school accent and worked in HR. Betts loads on all the stock ingredients of a farce: each character’s entrance is increasingly ridiculous, from eccentric friend Karen (Charlotte Pyke) whose vegetarianism the hostess Jess (Annabel Bates) forgets – she can’t eat the fish! – to Jess’s younger sister Annie (Nicole Abraham) who performs a coked up Shakespearean soliloquy and eventually has to be carried to bed.
The writing has a quick-fire, but often stilted quality – the back and forth dialogue feels as though it’s framed around set-ups to jokes whose punchlines are sometimes funny and sometimes not at all. In fact, most of the conversations just don’t sound real – not the earnest and fraught exchanges between Jess and her partner Mat (Jack Johns), an idle writer who has recently discovered she’s cheated on him, and definitely not the seemingly crowbarred-in references to world events and political differences between the group of disparate dinner guests; oddball Simon (Ralph Aiken) picks up a Chilean bottle of wine and starts to talking about Pinochet’s coup.
But whilst it may seem superficial on the surface, Muswell Hill‘s very obvious staginess points towards something interesting occurring formally – the very deliberate and often laboured framing of empty, bourgeois lifestyles through an exhausted bourgeois form has a knowing, meta-theatrical quality. Even the food Jess cooks is “so reassuringly 1970s”, a reflexive comment, surely, on the whole tired set-up. The question is whether this is enough; in putting a privileged bubble of middle class people into theatrical quotation marks, Betts seems to let his audience (most of whom look very much like the characters onstage) off the hook somewhat, and it feels like there’s a missed opportunity to more boldly deconstruct or even blast the the frame as the play progresses.