Review: God of Carnage (Theatre Royal Bath)

Yasmina Reza’s comedy is revived by Lindsay Posner in Bath

Elizabeth McGovern, Amanda Abbington and Ralf Little
Elizabeth McGovern, Amanda Abbington and Ralf Little
© Nobby Clark

In 2008, God Of Carnage was introduced to the English speaking theatre world and became a monster hit: playing the West End, Broadway and then on screen; each featuring a heavyweight class of actor, relishing going gladiatorial in a chic apartment. Audiences lapped it up, the kind of boulevard comedy that only seems to dare be created now by the hot European scene, Yasmina Reza who already had form as the writer of Art and seemingly taking on her mantle now by Florian Zeller.

Reza, following the lineage of French theatre greats, has an acute ear for skewering the bourgeoisie. Two couples meet to discuss a playground scrap which has left the hosts' son with two teeth missing. The polite conversation soon makes way for all-out warfare as battle lines are drawn and all four reveal the monster beneath.

Relocated from Paris to London (in the Broadway production the late James Gandolfini was only talked into staying by a promise to relocate to his native Brooklyn) it's a work played out like a symphony. Its first movement plays gentle and sparring as the two couples figure each other out, pushing on to jagged and violet, then onto bacchanalian excess before a mournful heavy realisation as all the cards have been played and all attempts at civility removed. Director Lindsay Posner is aware of the ever-changing moods and is also strong at creating stage pictures that demonstrate the ever-shifting alliances. Actors nudge and slide onto sofas and chairs as couple spars with couple, man goes against woman and three take on one. It's a good lesson for any student director in the art of composition.

His production features a quartet of strong performances. Ralf Little's Alan may not possess the gravitas to fully convince as the lawyer constantly on his ever-vibrating phone, but he has the mournful little-boy-lost look down to a T when someone describes him "as looking as though he's been left at the side of the road". As his wife, Amanda Abbington seems the most balanced of the four, arguing that there has been a fault on both sides, although the stress of the whole thing leads to the work's most showpiece moment.

On the other side Elizabeth McGovern (the third resident of Downton Abbey to show up this summer season in Bath after Phyllis Logan and Brendan Coyle) shows the pomposity and hypocrisy of the liberal mother bear, preaching about the suffering in Darfur while demanding full surrender from what she perceives as a grave misjustice foisted upon her son. Her husband Michael, played by that fine actor Nigel Lindsay, meanwhile revels in his Neanderthal spirit and eventually begins baiting his wife in scenes reminiscent of George and Martha in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.

Unlike that work, this play's short running time works against its drunken excesses. No sooner have the characters swigged from a rum bottle than they are staggering around, drink loosening their mouths as though they are teenagers entering their first rodeo. In a piece that appears to run in real time, it needs more time for the alcohol to enter the bloodstream. Similarly, it's hard to imagine how each couple got together in the first place, so different are their outlooks on life. In a time when relationship councillors talk of a sudden influx of clients since the Brexit schism, you feel these characters would have long asked for a divorce.

Still, translator Christopher Hampton's jokes keep flowing and the farce keeps building on designer Peter McKintosh's chic London apartment, full of exhibition catalogues and an eyesore African spear mural that suggests money can't buy class. Ten years on, God Of Carnage is still a crowd-pleasing, skewering delight.