There’s a profound strain at the heart of this play, by American writer Adam Bock, which has just opened at the Tabard Theatre in West London. And it goes deeper than the tension it charts between the twenty-somethings who meet on a drunken bachelorette party in the city. This production feels at odds with itself.
To begin with, how quickly you’ll get on board with the story depends on how much you identify with the obsession with marriage demonstrated by the women – Linda, Marnie and Melissa – we are introduced to at the start. There’s something startlingly old-fashioned about the way they flash their engagement rings at us.
Of course, there’s a place on stage for digging into our need for love and security, but what follows – the nature of Marnie’s protracted anxiety over whether she’s doing the right thing by getting married – feels like an incredibly well-trodden path. And her friends’ reactions to her suggestion that she might end her engagement feels chafingly reductive. Is this really still where we are in exploring female identity?
But let’s leave that aside for a moment. Because the kind of self-generating, dramatic escalation that results in Marnie’s friends chasing her and the guy she hooks up with across the city is the lifeblood of most romantic comedies. And it courses through this production, from the humour to the sweetly stupid dance Frank (Josh Hayes) does in an attempt to win Marnie over.
But there’s a restlessness throughout the play – like an itch in need of a scratch – to be ‘more’ than that. So we get a spot-lit Linda (Kristina Epenetos) delivering overwrought monologues (and, in one long instance, a song) on how the city is a monster. And there’s a hint of lurking allegory in the carefully generalised ‘the city’ versus ‘our town’ where everyone lives.
This is something that director Vik Sivalingam pushes heavily here, from the discordant sound design and the forced-perspective set, a street, to the way the characters suddenly lose their balance, as if the city were stirring, before confronting each other. Nicely done projections of a cityscape all contribute to the production’s non-naturalistic air.
And that’s where the strain, the jarring note, hits: because the play never plunges into darker depths or does anything more than champion the undeniably fair but – by this point – wearily familiar message that Marnie needs to be true to herself. It feels like a Hallmark card dressed up as experimental theatre – content and presentation pulling in opposite directions. And the last scene doesn’t so much end as simply stop.
But there are some funny lines, delivered by a talented cast with lovely comic timing. Perhaps because they’re allowed to be vulnerable without dramatic fanfare, the most touching strand is the tentative relationship that emerges between the girls’ employer, Bob, and Frank’s best friend Eddie. Together, Max Wilson and Michael Walters shade between hesitancy and cautious hope. Their scenes are where this production – when it takes time to breathe – is genuinely affecting.