Not since E A Whitehead’s Alpha Beta over thirty years ago has the Royal Court made houseroom for such a bitter marital bare knuckle fight as this bruising encounter between Leo Butler’s estranged couple in Faces in the Crowd.
Dave (Con O'Neill) left Sheffield ten years ago and has lately moved into a studio flat in the regenerated part of the capital’s East End with a view of the gherkin, chorizo and bean salad in the fridge, an order for the Guardian and louvered cupboards in the bedroom. He’s obviously a class traitor as well as a capitalist lackey (he works for a recruitment agency) and is seeing a girl half his age, which is more than we do, alas.
Butler bangs him up solely with the visiting wife, Joanne (Amanda Drew), whose London mission is to bed Dave while she’s ovulating and win him back by getting herself pregnant. She’s thoughtfully packed some Viagra in her toilet bag, for Dave is wilting under pressure of the decadent life in the south.
It’s all a bit far-fetched and schematic, but Clare Lizzimore’s production is remarkable in two respects: firstly, the raw intensity of the performances, with Drew in particular required to flaunt her rather magnificent nakedness to an almost impertinent degree; both actors visit the toilet, Drew to realistically urinate (or was that a sound effect?) and stiffen her resolve, O’Neill to stiffen his, so to speak, with the aid of some pornographic magazines.
Secondly, the show makes voyeurs of us all: seventy-five customers peering down from above into the open plan “minimalist” white habitation which has been built into the Upstairs by designers William Fricker and Rae Smith so that the building’s timbered roof is literally and architecturally functional.
The rooms are marked off but exposed to our gaze and our permanently craning necks. It turns out that Joanne’s three previous pregnancies were all aborted, we don’t know why, and now she’s hitting forty, it’s make or break time. And Dave has a tremendous long speech about the hopelessness of his life that is all Mrs Thatcher’s fault.
I’m sure Butler doesn’t want us to think his characters are as stupid as they sound, but intelligence is continuously outstripped by selfish noisiness, and we’re not even sure if the impromptu bestial coupling over the lunch counter in the kitchen is going to have the required effect. Luckily the salad has been put away in the fridge.