Anyone who's lived in London for any length of time will identify with the sentiments voiced by Michelle and her boyfriend Robert in Michael Wynne's new play, The People Are Friendly. I felt the déjà vu of a thousand dinner party conversations as the characters enumerated the capital's faults - the pace, the rudeness, the Tube, the crime, the grime. All of which have driven them to trade their cramped two-bedroom Clapham flat for a five-bedroom house in Birkenhead.
After 12 years in the capital, Michelle has fled back to her home town outside Liverpool, where her new palatial, if somewhat crumbling, abode overlooks the estate still lived in by her parents and sister. To celebrate her homecoming, she invites her family round for a barbecue but, of course, things don't exactly go to plan.
Dominic Cooke's production milks the predictable laughs that arise from cocktails, hors d'oeuvres ("they look like they've just slipped out of someone's arse" is the verdict on stuffed vine leaves) and general party protocol, but there are more fundamental clashes between the pretensions and misperceptions of cosmopolitan Michelle and the daily realities of her struggling family. After some Act One meandering, when Wynne's script dangerously loses momentum, the depth of the divide between their positions is made all too clear when, in Act Two, Michelle reveals details of her new job, sparking a confrontation with her sister that underlines just how patronising a comment like "the people are so friendly" can be.
As Donna, Michelle Butterly turns in an outstandingly gritty performance. A factory-working mother exhausted from the constant demands of an unemployed boyfriend, a mute and emotionally disturbed son, and a drug-peddling teenaged daughter (the luscious and lippy Sheridan Smith) with Britney Spears aspirations and a baby of her own. Other top acting honours go to Sue Jenkins as matriarch Kathleen, whose sweet-natured, Fairy Liquid-wielding dippiness masks her own marital strains.
Unfortunately, in the central role, Sally Rogers disappoints. She's fine with the control freakery of Michelle but fails to convey the insecurities beneath it - her attempts at spontaneous blubbing are particularly embarrassing. The men are less key to proceedings, though Stephen Mangan as posh and put-upon sponger Robert does seize his comic opportunities and Nick Moss amuses as the thuggishly thick Brian.
Of course, all these actors may have done well to heed the age-old advice about never working with animals or children. Here, they're nearly upstaged by both in the form of an unseen cat and the angelic-looking, mischief-maker Eddie (Joe Cooper on the night). And then there's the baby. When, in the final moments, Michelle carries a real squirming infant into the light, the ahhh's from the stalls are audible.
- Terri Paddock