If there is a strictly more promising new play than Nick Payne’s at the Bush this year, I haven’t found it yet, though there have been plays with pithier and more sensible titles.
There is a slight sense of assembling the elements: fat girl is being bullied at the school where her mother teaches while dad, a college lecturer, is thinking of writing a book after watching the New Orleans floods on television.
But Payne keeps things funny and fresh, and the acting in Josie Rourke’s smart and snappy production is a total delight, with Ailish O'Connor’s lumpen adolescent Anna, nursing a nosebleed after a netball fight and facing up to Pandora Colin’s peace-making Fiona, her mother, who is drifting apart from her work-obsessed, ludicrously “green” husband.
This George is played by Michael Begley in the curious donnish voice of the literary critic John Carey, falling down on his “r”s and tripping over his own silly ideas – like joining the family holiday in America by boat in order to save the planet – like an unformed puppy in cardigan and spectacles.
It’s one of the funniest turns of the year. The catalyst for the action, though, is Rafe Spall’s returning young drifter carrying a candle for Fiona’s unachievable cousin Rachel (whom we never see) before finding a cause in Anna’s sorry plight with a dodgy hot date before decamping to Weymouth to open a bar that soon closes.
The play rambles in its second half, but never stops being watchable. Designer Lucy Osborne has transformed the Bush into an all sky blue multi-various location (there’s even a bath with running water where Anna cuts herself), the audience seated on a collection of chairs, stools, benches and sofas that is a delightful variation in the space; customers are asked to turn off their phones and sit anywhere “that’s not blue”.
Spall’s Terry is a likely lad with a loose mouth and an easy charm and it’s always a special pleasure to watch a performance of this measure of skill at close quarters. On the downside, the intimacy camouflages faults that would look glaring on a bigger stage. Nonetheless, this is an almost classic new play night in the Bush.