Review: Monogamy (Park Theatre)

Janie Dee stars in a new play from Torben Betts

Genevieve Gaunt and Janie Dee
Genevieve Gaunt and Janie Dee
© Helen Maybanks

A new play by Torben Betts is always a thing of note. Often compared to Alan Ayckbourn, the playwright has a deft way of writing biting satire, occasionally touched with the complete absurd, which offers a devastating take down of the world in which we live today. So the prospect of Monogamy, starring, no less, the very excellent Janie Dee in a role written specifically for her, is enough to entice.

What a pity, then, that Monogamy doesn't deliver. A muddled, awkward and only occasionally humorous look at a secret-harbouring family and one night in which everything is blown wide open, the piece trudges along, entirely confused about what it is.

At the centre of the mess is Caroline, played by Dee, a celebrity chef, who broadcasts a cooking programme from her delightful kitchen, and who is hosting a family meal this evening to celebrate her son's first from Cambridge. Her emotionally unstable, drug-taking assistant is not juggling Caroline's life well, however, and her alcoholic, bully, retired banker of a husband is a handful. Caroline is trying to maintain a sham marriage, basically, and this is the evening in which everything falls completely apart.

Mostly, the tone is just off. Genevieve Gaunt as assistant Amanda and Patrick Ryecart as husband Mike play it for the laughs. The over-acting could have worked (they provoke most of the night's comedy) had the rest of the show felt like out-and-out farce. As it is, their portrayals sits at odds with Dee's fairly understated (in comparison) portrayal. And though Dee's character is the pivot on which everything rests, it's hard to really get under Caroline's skin. The early scenes start to sketch out what kind of woman she is, but from the second half onwards, she staggers about the stage completely pissed, barely uttering a word. We aren't sure where our loyalties, or focus should lie.

Bett's thread of an angry God overseeing proceedings also doesn't land. Caroline studied Theology and we keep being told she's recently found religion, but quite why, we don't get to the bottom of. It essentially means the fairly ridiculous denouement falls flat. Her God makes a kind of appearance through the weather – there's a lot of pathetic fallacy in Monogamy, not least the epic thunderstorm at the show's climax – and it all ultimately feels quite strained.

Dee is persuasive as a mother, wife and culinary goddess just about holding it together, but the play's second half really doesn't do her any favours. She's an excellent drunk, but we are never sure whether she's desperate to get out of her mess or desperate to stay in it. Charlie Brooks plays a jilted wife, who appears in the second half in a case of mistaken identities and is very good, despite the role itself bordering on 'mad lady with a knife' cliché. James Perkins' smart kitchen designs offer a glimpse of the sheen and gleam of a latently unhappy life, but Alastair Whatley's clunky direction doesn't help to iron out the play's many flaws.