An intriguing idea by the talented Torben Betts, Muswell Hill is a character-oriented play that can be adequately summed up by the simple and amusing phrase, "first world problems". We join six relatively 'ordinary' people in London amidst the news of the Haiti earthquake, in an evening dinner party that will eventually swerve into rather unexpected territory for all of them. Be it a soap opera-esque chain of individual misdeeds, or the recognition of an unfulfilled life, the plights of the characters are put up against the true suffering of those in Haiti, with the audience left questioning everything from Obama to the importance of the monkfish stew.
Roger Mortimer-Smith's intimate production at the White Bear immerses us fully in the woes of the characters, each representing one of an array of cosmopolitan stereotypes as they enter the (typically middle class) dinner party. For instance, we have the hard-working, breadwinner wife, a yo-yo vegetarian dieter and over-sharer, and a struggling writer. Betts somehow manages to bring them all down to earth.
Karen, first introduced to us as a mile-a-minute talker, complaining about everything from her love life to the prawn and avocado, is actually a character of perpetual exclusion, struggling with being a young widow and managing to somehow be alone in a roomful of people. The 'traveller' Simon, is seemingly a self-important preacher of Marxism and antidisestablishmentarianism, droning on about the righteousness of his travels, though he too caught up in his own rootlessness and personal frustration to even comment on the plight of Haiti until prompted by an argument between guests. Jess, the modern and successful breadwinner is plagued by insecurity, constantly fussing over appearances - be it her dress, the dinner party's success, or that of her failing relationship.
Muswell Hill gives a surprisingly, almost hauntingly realistic depiction of modern middle class life, with the intimate seating adding to the impression that we, as an audience, personally know the characters. They could be our flatmates, our colleagues or our family friends, with the debates and the hilarious 'Shakespeare-Off' between Simon and Tony adding to their humanisation. And there are some excellent performances, especially from Alastair Natkiel (Simon) and Annabel Bates (Jess).
However, at times it does feel as though you're sitting through a well-heeled alternative to EastEnders. And the beautiful stage design combining an impression of Haitian rubble amongst sleek kitchen pieces prompted me to expect the earthquake tragedy to feature more prominently. Although a very worthwhile watch, I felt the absence of a revelation whereby we can see the relative triviality of those aforementioned 'first world problems' in comparison to the true suffering alluded to in the story.
Muswell Hill continues at the White Bear until 30 August