“Never let a woman in your life” grouses Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. “Never let a salesman in your house” is the moral of Simon Block’s Chimps. It’s the tragi-comedy of Mark and Stevie, a young couple whose relationship falls apart even more quickly than it might otherwise have done once desperate Lawrence and manipulative Gabriel set their polished shoes across the threshold.
We’re in a turn-of-the-20th-century house in north London, in a area which is not quite yet a thoroughly desirable one. Stevie pays the mortgage; she’s got a steady job. Mark has no job at all but a big project that may (just may) have prospects; a painstakingly illustrated alphabet book for children. Art is everything to him – his girl-friend, the baby they are expecting and the nitty-gritty of everyday living are two-dimensional by comparison.
The pattern is set as they return from a shopping trip. She counts every penny and tries not to overspend. He’s lashed out (with her money) on a bottle of vintage champagne. The play may be twelve years old, but this (and the other situations which develop) is a set-up as true today as in 1997. And, sadly, it will probably be just as as valid in 2021.
Jenny Platt is very good indeed as Stevie, becoming more and more frustrated by the burdens which Mark’s fecklessness heaps on her, from his inability to stick to what he has promised to the way he forms a homosocial alliance with the salesmen with whom he has so rashly made an appointment. You want to cheer when a tactic learnt at her self-defence class finally gives her the edge. And to weep when she has to realise that it will exact its price.
But everything in life has a cost and a value as well as a price, of course. Ben Lambert is likeable as Mark when we first meet him and only gradually reveals that the character’s wooliness is not confined to his sweater. Vinta Morgan is Gabriel, the sharp-suited sales executive who knows how to play every grubby card in his smart briefcase, right down to the racial one. He contrasts well with Nick Wilton as Lawrence, who so wants to prove that he is not over the hill and that he can make redundancy into a real opportunity.
Lawrence certainly has the gift of the gab, only it’s the wrong sort of verbiage. Wilton begins by making him harmless enough, slowly develops his full spasms of nastiness and then twists into unpleasant despair as Lawrence accepts that he is never going to make the grade as a salesman and that the Job Centre beckons with its ritual of signing-on and small prospect of ever signing-off again.
Director Peter Rowe allows the comedy to develop in tandem with its bitter after-taste and Block’s dialogue, more complex in its patterns than at first appears, is also permitted its own cross-currents. There’s an excellent set by Foxton, taking up the full width of the stage and splitting it between the more-or-less furnished living-room and the kitchen. The roof-tops suggested above the set and the passing of various characters outside its windows remind us that home may be a family’s castle but it’s also liable to be besieged.
Especially by salesmen trying to sell you wall-proofing. But thn, you’d never let them inside your own front door. Now, would you? Of course not?