Note: This review dates from the production's original run at the National Theatre in December 2000.
French playwright Yasmina Reza is best known for the long-running West End hit, Art, which has been playing at Wyndham's Theatre since October 1996. Like Art, this new play, Life x 3 (named more revealingly in French, Trois Versions de la Vie) is a sophisticated comedy of manners – bad manners, that is.
Instead of three friends arguing over the merits of a piece of modern art, here we have two scientists and their wives arguing over our place in the cosmos. Which makes the tittle-tattle and scarping sound much loftier than it is. In fact, it's very down and dirty and all the more compelling for it.
The evening begins with a fraught Henry and Sonia, who are trying to coax their whining six-year-old to sleep when the doorbell rings. Enter Hubert, Henry's older and much more successful colleague, and his stay-at-home wife Ines, who have arrived for a dinner party a day earlier than expected. With the plaintive cries of the child coming from the bedroom and nothing but cheesy Wotsits and chocolate fingers coming from the bare kitchen, dinnerless disaster is a near certainty.
During the scenes that follow, we are presented with three possibilities for what happens next. In each, the bare bones are the same – Sonia is caught unawares in her bathrobe, Hubert reveals that another paper similar to one that Henry has been working on for three years has just been published, Ines discovers a ladder in her stocking – but the characters reactions to these situations, and thus our interpretations of them, alter slightly.
Lifex3 benefits from a stellar cast. Mark Rylance (seen here outside his normal stomping ground at the Globe for the first time in five years) plays Henry with nervy defeatist energy, driven to distraction by the cool machinations of Harriet Walter as his wife. An enjoyably muddled Imelda Staunton, too, feels outclassed by her spouse, an arrogant yet attractive Oliver Cotton. There are those who can cope with the demands of life and those who can't, says Reza. And the more sensitive Henry and Ines – particularly in their dealings with their partners, who are either strong or cruel depending on your perspective – are undeniably the latter.
And yet for all the great gathering of talent, I can't help but feel that an opportunity has been lost. Despite some wonderfully wry observations, hilarious details and thought-provoking comments, at 90 minutes without an interval, Reza's script is just too slight to be really satisfying. Like Hubert and Ines, I felt as if I'd turned up for a dinner party and been denied the main course. A pity.