Never Have I Ever at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre – review

The new comedy opens in Chichester

Never Have I Ever, © Helen Murray
Never Have I Ever, © Helen Murray

“It’s like asking who has the worst deckchair on the Titanic” declares one of four ex-university friends as they tear chunks from one another in a game of one-upmanship, all laying claim to being the hardest done-by disenfranchised group. A Black woman, the son of an immigrant, a bisexual woman and a straight white man all have something to say about where the world has put them in society. In an age where opinions are loud and defences are often less than welcome, the topicality is on point.

However, in Deborah Frances-White’s new play reflecting on feminism, racism, class, misogyny, privilege and infidelity (to name but a few of the issues that are brutally aired here) the relevance of it all becomes rather lost as the audience is unrelentingly dealt sledgehammer-like blows that leave you mercilessly ragged by the end of it all.

The two couples all met at university, and now Jacq and Kas are having to host their wealthy friends for dinner in their trendy but newly bankrupt restaurant. Adaego is a high-flying influencer and podcaster, whilst Tobin is the older straight white man that has helped to finance the restaurant and is about to find out his investment is lost.

It all starts light heartedly enough, with jovial quips as the group seemingly tolerate one another rather than enjoy each other’s company. Labelling and virtue signalling aplenty give cause for argument and discussion. Tobin is mocked for his woke – “but in a good way” – claims as a privileged white man, whilst Jacq is harangued just as much for creating a trendy and unaffordable restaurant in the East End of London despite her claims to be a socialist. We’re reminded that ‘woke’ doesn’t have to be derogatory and that old leave-voting thing is dragged up again as being the ultimate insult.

As the evening descends into an alcohol fuelled game of ‘never have I ever’ the wheels quickly fall off with an admission of infidelity within the foursome. Despite the mildly cringey ‘drunk’ acting there is slick direction by Emma Butler that moves the revelry along quite spritely with some flashy flame work thrown in for good measure within Frankie Bradshaw’s impressive stage design.

The darker second act is where the themes are explored in greater depth, but it is here that the thematic pummelling really begins. An Indecent Proposal style transaction is proposed in order to settle the adultery in the midst, it leads to ideologies being crossed and values being questioned. Jacq’s socialist ideologies are suddenly diluted by money and the unwaveringly arrogant Tobin buckles under the pressure of trying to navigate his way through the wrongs of being a straight white man.

Frances-White turns the mirror to some of the many claims and counterclaims that are made within her text. As Adaego passionately talks of the challenges she faces every day as a Black woman, so too is there a suggestion that it is hard for men right now to do or say the right thing. The message is never anything less than there has to be change and we have to learn. The over exuberant first night audience certainly had a lot to say on the matter! With the sheer volume of argument crammed in, however, there is a lack of nuance to the debate which very quickly becomes exhausting.

The quartet onstage work hard but don’t always entirely convince. Alex Roach is a free-speaking Jacq that is trying to conform to a world that she doesn’t quite fit. Amit Shah’s gently amenable Kas is a fence-sitter and peacemaker and provides a greater subtlety to his performance. Susan Wokoma’s Adaego has some rollicking moments at full force but doesn’t always manage to bring the tempo down when needed. Greg Wise provides a simmering arrogance to his smarmy Tobin.

This will undoubtedly be a play that divides opinion and is certainly one that will provoke discussion. For me though, I was left feeling bludgeoned by the exhaustive array of issues on display and the lack of gradation around their exploration.