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Review Round-up: Hampstead Short of Friends

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The Hampstead Theatre presented the latest production in its 50th Anniversary season this week (26 May 2009, previews from 21 May) – the world premiere of April de Angelis' dark comedy Amongst Friends.

Journalist Lara and her ex-MP and crime writer husband Richard, are happy and successful. Having moved to a fashionable ‘gated community’ they invite their old neighbours Caitlin and Joe to dinner. When the security system fails the food for dinner is delivered by a stranger and the dinner party takes quite a different turn…

Anthony Clark directs a stellar cast comprising Helen Baxendale, James Dreyfus, Aden Gillett, Vicki Pepperdine and Emma Cunniffe. Amongst Friends continues for a limited run to 13 June 2009.

In general the critical reception was frosty, with Amongst Friends failing to match the raft of positive reviews that greeted its predecessor in the anniversary season, Michael Frayn's Alphabetical Order (See Review Round-up, 24 April 2009). Most of the negative comments were aimed at De Angelis' text, with many comparing the set-up to Priestley's An Inspector Calls, but lacking in “emotional muscle” and laughs. There was widespread praise for the performances, particularly the “superb” James Dreyfus, but overall Amongst Friends was assessed, in the words of the Guardian's Lyn Gardner, as “an evening of watching fine actors attempting to do the impossible with the improbable”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “The trouble with Patrick Connellan’s design for April de Angelis’ new play is that it’s too much, and too noisy. Every time someone takes a step on the wooden parquet floor, the noise reverberates like a BBC radio sound effect … I think we get the message that these people have cut themselves off, but the point is extravagantly made: how much do they have to spend on these Hampstead sets? There’s more money flying around on hardware than there is time spent on the script, which is jerkily unsatisfactory and wearingly unfunny … You can see where de Angelis is going: it’s a J B Priestley set-up with satirical remarks about lifestyle ... but it’s hard to get very involved and Anthony Clark’s production never really turns the screw.”

  • Dominic Maxwell  in The Times (two stars) - “It’s not a very subtle comment on our world of double standards, but then that’s about right for a play that starts out wittily enough before launching its state-of-the-nation fireworks half an hour in. What follows is impassioned, but jaw-droppingly clumsy and implausible. You can’t blame the cast. Oh, all right, Helen Baxendale is one-note as the spiky Lara, a tabloid columnist too afraid to leave this gated community. But Aden Gillett, as her smooth new Labour husband Richard, and Emma Cunliffe, as their earth-motherly former neighbour Caitlin, play it deftly. And James Dreyfus is superb as Caitlin’s husband Joe, giving a crumpled dubiousness to a man who hates the social schism that this armour-plated luxury represents.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (two stars) - “De Angelis’ play is intermittently funny, but strives too hard for topicality - with the now familiar dig at MPs’ expenses presumably a late insertion. From the opening moments it seems to be sliding uncomfortably towards farce, and the attempted pathos of the second half is inauthentic. Aden Gillett convinces as blithe politico Richard, and Emma Cunniffe is appealing as Caitlin, the nurse who offers a nurturing alternative to his wife. But Helen Baxendale is shrill, the role of Shelley (Vicki Pepperdine) reeks of cliché, and overall the production feels flat, lacking either emotional muscle or satirical bite.

  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (one star) - “Set a play in a closed environment and before the end of scene one, the outside world will invade. So it proves in April de Angelis' preposterous comedy that comes with shades of JB Priestley and such an overload of creakiness that for all its references to bankers and politicians, you would have thought it was written early last century rather than last week … With Helen Baxendale playing Lara and Aiden Gillett as Richard, this is all-star casting, but it's an evening of watching fine actors attempting to do the impossible with the improbable. There are brittle one-liners but little sign of hidden depths in a plodding production that opts for kitchen-chic realism rather than something more surreal and edgy.”

  • Charles Spener in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) - “Another day, another dud at Hampstead. April De Angelis' play concerns a tabloid columnist and her New Labour husband who live in a swanky gated community in east London. They invite two old friends to supper, but, when a mysterious stranger arrives, the disastrous dinner party scenario turns into a rewrite of Priestley's An Inspector Calls, attacking middle-class complacency and guilt in the face of urban poverty and deprivation. The mixture of tired jokes, moral handwringing, and the early death of the only interesting character … all make for a dismal night at a theatre once renowned for sharp new writing.”

- by Theo Bosanquet


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