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The End of Longing (Playhouse Theatre)

Lindsay Posner directs Matthew Perry's debut play at the Playhouse

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Moving on from a hit show like Friends - which ran from 1994 to 2004 - is a tough call for any actor, but Matthew Perry has diversified into film, production and writing with an impressive energy, lately scoring a big success with the CBS television re-vamp of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.

The End of Longing, in which Perry plays a battered, alcoholic and socially inconsiderate 40 year-old photographer, Jack, is a smart and painfully honest new play he has written - his first - to both reconsider the kind of relationships we followed in Friends and exorcise his own well-publicised demons of addiction.

Two pairs of best friends - Jack and his soft-ball playing buddy Joseph (Lloyd Owen); high-class prostitute Stephanie (languorous, deadly Jennifer Mudge) and medication supplier Stevie ( bright-as-a-button and speedy Christina Cole) - meet in a Los Angeles bar, jump into bed with each other and unravel the consequences of sexual need and emotional commitment that suddenly engulf them all on the brink of middle-age.

The writing is wired, raw, politically incorrect and very funny, and it's given a sharp kick in the goolies by some superb performances from all four actors in Lindsay Posner's shrewd, on-the-nose production, monologues and terse exchanges, often in very short scenes, punctuated with some super-cool music and sound design by Isobel Waller-Bridge.

Anna Fleischle's smart and sleek design uses the city skyscape and large sliding slabs of transparent windows as we move from the plush red booth of the downtown bar to bedrooms and locker rooms (where Jack pours after-game martinis from a flask) and the antiseptic interior of a hospital ward as the arrival of a much-wanted baby triggers a final, optimistic shake-out and the rustle of new leaves being turned over.

Some of this has obvious echoes of Perry's own rehab efforts and also, perhaps, of his less than stable private life. But it's unusual to find a comedy so finely wrought from personal scar tissue. The effect is not unlike watching a re-write of Coward's Private Lives strained through Marber's more flamboyantly explicit Closer, a new kind of sex-in-the-city scenario, a messily uncertain quadrille for spoilt hedonists.

Perry has no qualms about going to seed and behaving like a drunken asshole from dawn to dusk, ranting in public, storming in denial and even cursing the fact that there are no bars in hospitals. Stephanie finally lays down the law, having spotted his chink when he creeps back one night because he wants to watch her sleeping.

At the same time, Owen's beautifully judged, fruity-voiced Joseph - he's a master of reaction shots and the slow burn - discovers a vocation in partner support, overturning Stevie's expectation of him being a monosyllabic dork with limited friendship potential.

One little bonus for me, from the right-hand side of the stalls, was a glimpse of legendary West End company stage manager Howard Jepson lining up Jack's double vodkas on the bar; there's a glimpse, too, of a nurse at the hospital desk. Coward would have written these two "invisible" cameos into the dialogue. Perry's a novice playwright, but one of great promise, and that sort of detail, and confidence, may follow in due course.

The End of Longing runs at the Playhouse Theatre until 14 May.

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