Thursday 24th May 2018 at York Theatre Royal.
Monogamy is the new comedy-drama from Torben Betts, and while it appears to have some solid, sharp criticisms to launch against the young and foolish, the mature yet deluded, the rich and famous and the ‘principled’ and sinful, it doesn’t quite land on its feet. Despite a stellar cast featuring the incredible Janie Dee whose biting, exciting performance in Follies was the reason for my Monogamy trip, this production feels flat and uninteresting for most of the first act until a ludicrous set of escalating events in the second act transports us into a warped farce. So far removed is the whacky second act from the static, soporific first that it’s a little like nipping to the loo in the middle of a film and then heading back into the wrong screen room at the cinema…Caroline (Janie Dee) is a TV Chef enjoying prime time success, but at home, things are tense; husband Mike (Patrick Ryecart) sleeps in another room and son Leo (Jack Archer) is fit to bust with frustration towards his scatterbrained mother who seems intent on cutting him off just as he begins to heavily hint about his big dramatic news. Caroline’s new assistant Amanda (Genevieve Gaunt) is company-appointed and acts it; surly and dismissive towards Caroline, flirtatious or rejecting of all else and utterly crackers on Coke and cell addiction, she gains laughs initially but the joke runs too long and without much else added across the duration. There’s not much presence of the TV Chef narrative which is puzzling after seeing how the marketing places such weight with it – but for the opening five minutes, a discussion of a paparazzi scandal and a few references later on, the career doesn’t seem to carry much significance in a production which primarily seeks to satirise privilege and the hypocrisy of the holier than thou folk. Elsewhere in the home, Handy man Graeme (Jack Sandle) is getting some work done but the appearance of his wife Sally (Charlie Brooks) creates some lively chaos in his working day and with this, a cast of five weave a web of odd interactions all loosely linked to the trials, tribulations and folly of the many expectations and pitfalls tied up with monogamy.It’s a promising start initially as the curtain rises on Caroline talking to camera from her swanky kitchen with some nice easy comedy via accents and a begrudging exchange with the unimpressed assistant. James Perkins’ set design is a vision of contemporary cookery shows; a large open plan space with lots of light, herbs in pastel planters dotted about the place and a nicely contrasting faux country homeliness via wood-clad walls. The only thing out of the ordinary is a crucifix over the sink – a pointed statement about Caroline’s values as a backdrop to her wine guzzling and a visual reminder of why her son might be behaving such an erratic, volatile manner. It all begins with pace and sharply timed and landed quips, with a fair few laughs created with just a look, but it doesn’t really get any better than that opening scene in Act 1. On a set that never shifts, characters go through the motions; they chat, prepare food, amble about, have half-conversations and make many, many allusions to underlying frictions but frustratingly, this is without ever really getting stuck into a single one of them during the first hour or so.Act 2 is much livelier, but the action takes a sudden and unexpected turn from the kitchen sink soap drama of the first hour over to the direction of farce as each character behaves in increasingly outlandish ways to create a series of events which puzzle more than they amuse – but it is notably more engaging. We are shown that this is clearly a family home full of strangers – no one knows a thing about any of the others and while everyone talks and talks (some more loudly than others), no one actually listens, and this classic dynamic appears to be the intended root of much of Betts’ comedy. Unfortunately, the writing isn’t witty enough to pull this off and actually, the best laughs are gained by Dee’s physicality as she gets gradually more and more sozzled until she’s eventually stumbling and finding interesting places to cower from the reality of all her dirty secrets being aired. I just so wish there were more substance to it all than the heavy handed scripting of a bleary-eyed drunken religious woman having an epiphany on her knees while surrounded by an upturned husband, a warring couple and her falsely euphoric offspring… There’s satire to be found, of course, but it’s neither subtle nor sophisticated – and it’s mostly only mildly comical.The performances are capable, with some being strong in fact – Dee gives the best performance and gives her all to furtive glances, biting of the lip, stumbling about and wide-eyed glares; all markers of a woman on edge, and Dee manages to get a fair few laughs through this physicality alone. RyeCart plays the husband as an ageing Victor Meldrew-type – never using an inside voice and almost always frowning in confusion or annoyance- he sounds angry even when he’s telling a joke and that makes him a strong presence, but not exactly a likeable one. Archer gives a sincere, passionate performance but the writing does little for the character and in the same vein, Gaunt is a very strong presence and gives a forceful performance, but the character is not well drawn. Brooks plays unstable very well, this we know, and here she portrays Sally with a quiet sense of internal trauma, but while the writing invites a little sympathy early on, it isn’t very kind on the whole.The script is undoubtedly problematic in its portrayal of some marginalised sub sectors; a woman once sectioned is forcefully plied with drink while she protests that the doctor has advised against it, and not at all shockingly, this leads to unstable and dangerous behaviour; a young carer ends up drug addicted and off the rails, a product of a childhood without freedom; a painfully uptight gay young man is indulgently self-obsessed, overly preachy about the moral conflicts of wars created by the West – and overly dramatic almost every step of the way. It does no favours to the diverse characters Betts takes the time and thought to include, so I question their involvement at all – they’re not the butt of jokes only because the comedy isn’t actually strong enough, which is clearly a lucky escape… Yet irrespective of this careless handling of representation, the characters invite little sympathy, some irritation and also great exasperation – particularly when the son throws his arms up in the air with an eye roll for the twenty sixth time because mum never listens before clamming up like a five year old and pacing like a highly strung caged meerkat…Monogamy seems to have a lot to say, but it has a muddled way of getting to its point. Dramatic moments are over-played too much for real impact and comical moments are not played largely enough, leaving this production in limbo between comedy and drama – farce and domestic realism. That might be intended, but it doesn’t work well here because the script seems confused and a collection of much admired actors can’t make it shine; it’s almost like Director Alastair Whatley has haggled for an impressive collection of prized, thoroughbred race horses only to leave them milling around in the stables… With some joining up of disparate dots, this piece could become something very worthwhile when we consider the central ideas of exploring privilege, responsibility, religion and family dynamics, but as it stands, there’s just too little going on for too much of the running time – that is, until there’s suddenly too much going on with too little gravity…
Monogamy is presented by The Original Theatre Company, Ghost Light Theatre, Dovedon Productions and Eilene Davidson. It tours nationally until May and then heads to London until July 7th 2018, and you can find more information and tickets here.