The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder, the second play by 2005 Verity Bargate Award winner Matt Charman, received its world premiere on Wednesday (20 June 2007, previews from 13 June) at the National Theatre, where it runs in rep in the NT Cottesloe until 27 August.
In an ordinary house in a tree-lined street in Lewisham, pregnant Rowena is unprepared for her first meeting with Maurice’s three wives and teenaged son. She’s warmly welcomed, but her presence soon has the family questioning the nature of their delicate balance. Then Fay brings home a one-night stand, with far-reaching consequences for them all.
Larry Lamb plays Maurice, with Sorcha Cusack, Carla Henry, Clare Holman, Martina Laird and Tessa Peake-Jones as the titular harem of wives, newcomer Adam Gillen as son Vincent and Steve John Shepherd as the disruptive one-night stand. The production is directed by Sarah Frankcom and designed by Ti Green.
While most first-night critics fell in between two stools in their judgements of the new play – recognising Charman’s developing talent, they were intrigued by the premise and amused by some witty dialogue, but questioned the message and perceived implausibilities – there were two extremes. In support of Five Wives, Whatstonstage.com’s own critic Michael Coveney declared it “one of the best, and most promising, plays of the year so far”; at the other end of the spectrum, the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer another dismissed it as a “deeply second-rate” sitcom pilot.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Are (polyamorists) sex machines or merely men who love women to the point of idolatry? Matt Charman’s new play in the Cottesloe posits the latter theory in the case of a south London scaffolding impresario, Maurice Pinder (Larry Lamb), an open-minded free-liver who keeps vows that he made in the kitchen rather than the church … Amazingly, Charman – who won the Verity Bargate Award for his lively first play, A Night at the Dogs – makes this all plausible. He sets up a situation that Maurice believes can work until the inevitable cracks appear … Larry Lamb holds it all together, just about, with an easy, accommodating performance … You could imagine Sarah Frankcom’s well-orchestrated production benefiting from a more charismatic ‘turn’; but the point is probably that Maurice is a regular, easygoing guy who really does believe that each woman, on her night on the rota, is the centre of his self-satisfied universe … One of the best, and most promising, plays of the year so far.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “What constitutes a family? What makes a marriage? These are the questions posed by Matt Charman in his curious second play. But, far from providing any concrete answers, Charman simply presents us with a set of irreconcilable attitudes to the subject of polygamy … The problem is that Charman seems in two minds as to whether polyamorists like Pinder are to be applauded or attacked …
Sarah Frankcom's production does an excellent job of sorting out the play's domestic tangle. Clare Holman as the feisty Fay and Adam Gillen as her understandably mixed-up son also give striking performances, and Larry Lamb as the south London pasha blends patriarchal concern and outrageous self-centredness. But, although the play raises valid issues about the limitations of monogamy, it founders on one central question: would any group of intelligent, independent women subscribe to a convenient male fantasy?”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Who would have dreamed polygamy could be so dull? But watching Matt Charman's tedious new play, the idea of returning home to just the one wife has rarely seemed more attractive … The play seems like a grotesquely extended pilot for a sitcom that is doomed never to be made into a series. The set-up is too improbable, the jokes not nearly funny enough, the moments when the dramatist attempts to pull at our heart strings too blatantly manipulative. It is, in short, deeply second-rate, and its presence in the repertoire of the National Theatre is one of life's baffling mysteries. You have to buy into the initial premise or everything that follows seems entirely improbable .. The director Sarah Frankcom seems fatally undecided about whether she is directing a comedy or a serious play, and the performances on Ti Green's traverse stage design in the Cottesloe betray similar uncertainty.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (three stars) – “Home life can get a bit crowded, it seems, when you're a polygamist. Matt Charman's strange, funny-sad, intriguing second play offers an ambivalent look at what we mean by family and marriage … In Sarah Frankcom's lucid, well-acted production, we see why the various wives got involved in the tangled set-up and why the point has come where it can no longer be sustained … The irony is that (polyamory) is not really an alternative lifestyle that this sultan of Lewisham desires. With his rigid domestic and sexual rotas, and compulsory family dinners, he seems to want the reassurance of five conventional lives concurrently. His instincts are protective, but he doesn't see the damage caused. Larry Lamb plays the character with just the right mix of solicitude and self-centred myopia. This is a second play of much promise.”
Kieron Quirke in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Polygamy is a pleasant but fragile state, according to this play from young writer Matt Charman. Based around a suburban ménage à cinq, it has a thoughtfulness and wit that are involving but is an unexpected insight or flash of inspiration short of fascinating. Its strength lies in the way Charman makes real the strange network of support and mutual reliance holding together the multilateral family at its centre. Creating a likeable man to run a voluntary harem is not easy, yet Larry Lamb's Maurice Pinder is such a man … Clare Holman is a bad girl you can cheer as recalcitrant fortysomething Fay; sexy and confused early on, her drunken grabs at freedom are the highlights of a second half that takes too much time to reach its inevitable conclusion. For Charman, having spent the first half explaining Maurice's philosophy, runs out of things to say … Sarah Franckcom's directorial choices - slow, sad set-changes and twinkling, contemplative music - numb the senses and encroach upon the consistently good jokes that are the play's best quality. Still, interesting stuff.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “If we can credit the Cottesloe programme, we soon won’t have to trek to outlandish subsections of Utah to find households like the one on show in Matt Charman’s Five Wives of Maurice Pinder. Polyamorism, as it’s called by sexual anthropologists, may become rife in overpriced terrace houses in respectable Lewisham … Forgive me if I’m somewhat sceptical. Larry Lamb’s Maurice is a bit too good to be true or, as a feminist might say, too much the sympathetically handled fantasy of a wishful male chauvinist … Charman avoids prurient sensationalism. Rather, he suggests that this extended family is only marginally more peculiar and superficially less normal than your average Mr and Mrs Jones of SE13 … But the play has its longueurs and its implausibilities … Indeed, the only character I found fully plausible was Fay’s son, Vincent, in Adam Gillen’s excellent performance an earnest nerd floundering awkwardly from bleating adolescence into twitchy adulthood.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) – “Lust in Lewisham, eh? But lust does not come into it. The play is more surprising that that … Maurice may not conform to the rules of ‘society’, but ‘society’ is hardly to be envied, given the mess it so often makes of monogamy … Matt Charman, writer-in-residence at the National, has written a charming, interesting, clever, human, tolerant, highly original play … I’d say he is brimming with talent.”
- by Terri Paddock