Review Round-up: Was Piper Treated to Good Notices?
By Editorial Staff
• 9 Mar 2007
• West End
After a delayed press night and much tabloid speculation about whether the Doctor Who star would make it to the stage after missing two preview performances due to illness, Billie Piper (pictured) made her West End debut last night (8 March 2007, previews from 20 February) in Christopher Hampton’s Treats at the Garrick, in an opening night rescheduled from 28 February (See News, 23 Feb 2007).
When Ann (Piper) loses her egotistical and violent ex-boyfriend Dave (Kris Marshall), she tries to rebuild her shattered confidence by forming a rebound relationship with Patrick (Laurence Boswell – Piper’s real-life boyfriend), the office bore. All is going as expected until Dave returns on a macho mission to try and win her back. Hampton’s 1976 three-hander, which has been updated to 21st-century London, is directed by Laurence Boswell and produced by Bill Kenwright.
Opening night critics said Piper gave as good as she gets in a “two-dimensional” role that doesn’t give the actress much scope. While some thought she was “really rather good”, others found her bland and cold, though they blamed the script rather than actress. They were impressed with Marshall’s macho Dave, and enjoyed Fox’s geeky portrayal of the new love interest. However, while they found the premise of the love triangle interesting and praised Hampton’s clever use of language and structure, most critics felt the play was slightly dated and the characters lacked depth.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) - “Laurence Boswell’s production is a bit of a discovery…. Billie Piper is really rather good…. Hampton has re-energised his stark, moral fable of dangerous liaisons…. This production restores the pain and pleasure of Hampton’s original as a tart and truculent comedy…. Piper is suspended between the old boyfriend and the new boredom. One could possibly read into this the media-led frenzy about Billie’s supposed oscillation between ex-husband and good chum Chris Evans and her new inamorata, Laurence Fox, her on-stage Patrick. This off-stage drama has undoubtedly fuelled the on-stage comedy, and all to the good. Late in the play, which is pleasantly short at just under two hours including a long interval, Kris Marshall’s splendidly supercilious Dave remarks that Patrick always looked like someone who’s just stepped into an empty lift shaft. The comment gets the right laugh because Fox has played for that gag all evening…. The play might now be reassessed as Hampton’s comic masterpiece. And Piper manages to be both a compellingly attractive but dramatically disastrous siren, and an intelligent assessor of her sexual options. She’s very good indeed. And another excellent play is restored.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) – “This chilling, black comedy of sexual manners by Christopher Hampton deals with far more than the eternal triangle of two middle-class chaps coming to grief and violence over the body of a sexy girl. Laurence Boswell's production makes the problem as clear as a psychotherapist's court report, thanks to the power with which Billie Piper, in an impressive West End debut of genuine emotional power, and dynamic Kris Marshall, together with Laurence Fox's over-doltish man in the middle, act out their love-relations…. The language sounds distinctly Seventies formal, while Jeremy Herbert's design offers a mystifying mix of objects from the Seventies and 2007…. Wherever we are, though, a timeless pattern of sexual behaviour is at once elaborated…. The charismatic Marshall, a natural actor right down to his toenails, draws the comic maximum from Dave's shamelessness and revels in the man's unspeakable egotism, while Fox's Patrick looks on in dumbfounded, long-suffering passivity…. Up to the interval, Treats rates as a superficial and trivial comedy of manners…. Hampton has, though, prepared his ground with psychological astuteness for the devastating second act.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) – “One suspects the off-stage dramas were more than a match for anything that takes place in this capable revival of Christopher Hampton's diagrammatically neat but strangely hermetic 1976 play…. My problem in 1976 was that I couldn't believe in Ann's restricted possibilities: why, in the age of women's lib, was she forced to choose between an amiable wimp and a destructive neurotic? And, by updating the action to the present, Hampton makes her dilemma even less credible.… Pre-empting Pinter's Betrayal, which appeared two years later, Hampton suggests the strongest bond in the play is really between the two men. In one astutely observed scene he shows how Dave, in picking over his failed relationship with Ann, turns to Patrick for instinctive support…. But it seems a curiously airless play; and, in Laurence Boswell's production, one is left admiring the dexterity of the three performers. Clearly the main focus is on Ms Piper and she intelligently suggests hidden reserves of strength inside the indecisive Ann…. Piper has poise and presence on stage…. Kris Marshall also implies, in moments of solitude, that there are redeeming private insecurities to the repulsive Dave. But the most intriguing performance comes from Laurence Fox who lends the hapless Patrick a gangling ineffectualness that makes it impossible for him to extract a key from its ring. We all love a loser and Fox has a dithering helplessness that suggests he would make a wonderful Konstantin in The Seagull.”
Alice Jones in the Independent – “Rarely has a leading lady caused so much drama before even stepping on stage…. one fully expected one of theatreland's overworked understudies to appear in her place. But, as the lid lifted off Jeremy Herbert's giant blue-and-yellow present of a set, there was the distinctive blonde actress calmly sitting on a beige Ikea sofa….. Somewhere along the way this promising premise seems to have been boiled down to a rehashing of the classic problem-page dilemma - should Ann stay with the guy who treats her well but is ‘too nice’ or go with the alluring, but abusive, bad boy?... In the first half she barely utters 20 lines and by the end of the play we have no idea of what makes her tick. Faced with this two-dimensional character, Piper finds it hard to shine. While watchable enough, she spends much of the play pulling the same disapproving face. As bully-boy Dave, Marshall has a good sense of comedy, which makes his dark side all the more menacing. As the ‘bore of international reputation’ Fox gives a performance which is amusing and touching. Both are given the best lines but they are absurd extremes and it's hard to see why Ann would want anything to do with either of them. All three actors have come to the West End from higher profile television roles. What a shame then that they have ended up in the closest theatre gets to soap opera.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “There has been much feverish press speculation about the delayed press night of this production…. Could I hazard the suggestion that the play itself might have made her sick? In its mixture of self-regarding cleverness and tendentious sexual politics Treats takes some beating….. Theatre is often at its best when exploring the dark and disastrous promptings of Eros…. what infuriates me is that while the two men in Ann’s life… witter on interminably, Hampton offers virtually no clue into what makes his heroine tick…. Is it just that she and Dave have great sex together? Well it might be, but unfortunately neither Hampton’s text nor Laurence Boswell’s flaccid production achieve the faintest frisson of erotic desire. Or is Hampton suggesting… some women actually like to be slapped about a bit?... if you are going to take such a provocative view, should you not at least have the courtesy to give the woman in question a chance to explain herself? All poor Ann gets to do is sob a lot and then smile fetchingly at her brutish partner…. Hampton is excellent at epigrammatic elegance… and this piece is structured with a clever mathematical precision….. But when it comes to… the heart, Hampton is… a dead loss…. Marshall exudes an edgy sense of danger as Dave, Fox… has some amusingly geeky moments as Patrick. But this is a mechanical and soulless little play that reminds us why Hampton has never quite made it into the premier league of British dramatists.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail – “Billie did fine in her West End debut last night. She turned up… she remembered her lines, moved fluently, took off her shirt at one point and looked jolly pretty. She even broke down into a convincing puddle of tears.… Yes, we can count this launch as an adequate success. But the play itself… is a slender work… neatly symmetrical, tightly spun but hardly an earth mover…. Fox mugs up the gormlessness of his character to the full… Marshall’s Dave is sexier than dull Patrick but, being a cocaine snorter with violent inclinations, he is more dangerous. Ann has to decide which she prefers. Theatrical purposes demand a pretty obvious answer…. This production is set in 21st century London… bad idea. Without the 1970s political context the play becomes little more than a workman like soap opera…. The art of the actor is to inhabit different lives and to create personas. Billie may have poshed up her accent last night but she was, I’m afraid, seldom more than Billie. I never felt I was watching Ann. Don’t blame her. Blame the men in the background pulling the strings.”
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