Parlour Song

Jez Butterworth’s new play (only his fourth) at the Almeida is a spooky tale of mid-life crisis and adultery in the suburbs, where the trees whisper strange messages, nightmares are rife and people think their neighbours are ghouls at the garden barbecues.

Ned, the demolition expert, is convinced that his possessions are being stolen by unseen intruders; he’s losing everything from gold cufflinks to lawnmowers. He’s also having trouble keeping his wife, Joy, happy in the bedroom, while neighbour Dale, the car-wash impresario, is standing by to help out and provide a good service.

Ian Rickson’s superb production starts with Toby Jones’ tedious and overweight little Ned boring Andrew Lincoln’s street-wise Dale for the umpteenth time with his film of a demolition job in Leeds, or is it in Kilmarnock? Anyway, next up will be the local shopping centre, and Dale and Amanda Drew’s lustrous, sensual Joy eventually put a lid on their summer affair when Ned gets round to the kiddies’ hospital in Tring.

While Ned knocks things down, housing estates like this one are springing up everywhere with identical layouts and front doors and identical cracks above the windows. What could have been a mass of cliches is anything but thanks to the poetic detail of the writing and the perfection of the acting.

Lincoln is a mobile, athletic best buddy, a powerful and immensely likeable stage presence, giving advice while taking Ned through his exercise paces. On his own, Jones hilariously tunes into a sexual practices audio-tape and tries to cover up by pretending his listening to Eric Clapton.

And as he goes through his stretches and weight-lifting routine, he turns into a parody of a martial arts expert, puffing, kicking and grunting like Jackie Chan’s tubby uncle. Drew’s Joy drifts through the play like an admonitory dream of seduction, while Lincoln’s Dale offsets the weirdness in his easygoing, semi-confidential relationship with the audience.

The moodily atmospheric quality of a play first seen at the Atlantic Theatre in New York last year (where Emily Mortimer played Joy and Jonathan Cake, Dale) is brilliantly sustained in Jeremy Herbert’s revolving design of grey transparent panels, Peter Mumford’s lighting and Stephen Warbeck’s music. An early contender for best play of the year.

– Michael Coveney