The Finborough Theatre revives Doug Lucie's rarely-seen 1982 play, set against the backdrop of the Brixton riots
Doug Lucie's 1982 play sees a group of largely ‘trustafarian' Oxford graduates waging a narcissistic class war in a gentrified Brixton house as riots erupt outside. Sound familiar?
The set up is vaguely reminiscent of The Young Ones, which coincidentally was first broadcast in the same month (November 1982) as Hard Feelings' Oxford Playhouse premiere. But this is no celebration of punkish student antics. Rather, Lucie mercilessly skewers a rich young landlady, Viv, as being a neo-fascist parasite whose parents' ownership of her house in Brixton is akin to Hitler's annexing of Austria.
It's a hard line to take but, considering the ongoing class tensions in boroughs across London as house prices rocket, a difficult one to contest. It's just a shame the characters are painted in such unforgiving brushstrokes; Viv and her hanger-on friends Rusty (a vain wannabe Adam Ant), Baz (nice but weak-willed northerner) and Annie (posh, borderline anorexic model) are given very short shrift.
The sympathies are reserved for law student Jane and her working class journalist boyfriend Tone. As he eagerly gets stuck in on the front line of the Brixton riots, she becomes caught between his inverted snobbery and Viv's yuppy-ish prejudice.
The conflict simmers and soon boils over at the end of Act One in a sharply-scripted showdown between Tone and Viv. "There's people who actually live ‘ere... not practisin' for the suburbs," says the former of the latter's ownership of property in a working class area. "I've turned out just the way I'm supposed to… I'm ideal," she retorts.
But thereafter the play never quite comes to the head one expects. In fact it rather fizzles out, until eventually Viv and her stooges are handed a somewhat farcical comeuppance for their hedonistic and isolationist lifestyle.
However, despite structural weaknesses (the opening scene is a mess of expositional introductions) there are some sharp observations on the political naivety of the young, and it's all played out by a promising acting company.
Callum Turner plays Tone as a leather-jacketed rebel with a cause, successfully carrying the weight of Lucie's political dogma on his shoulders. Zora Bishop infuses Jane with just the right level of indignant righteousness, while Jesse Fox provides colour as the military-jacketed Rusty (who turns out to be the son of a tabloid editor). And Isabella Laughland is frankly terrifying as the controlling, self-hating, alcoholic Viv.
Director James Hillier tightly marshals the action on a traverse stage that puts the audience nose-to-nose with the performers; the only downside of this arrangement is our proximity to some dubiously anachronistic props – you'd never guess from the bottle labels that we're in 1981.
Though it's unlikely to be reclaimed as a modern classic, Hard Feelings is another worthwhile rediscovery in the Finborough's fast-growing list. And it's a telling reminder of just how much recent history is currently repeating itself.
See also: Doug Lucie's guest blog on Hard Feelings