Theatre review: Muswell Hill at Park Theatre

It’s got a great cast, but this dinner party feels too long, says David Winskill.

Muesli Hill, as they used to call Muswell Hill, was traditionally full of Guardian reading, eco-worrying, real ale drinkers.

Muswell Hill the play, by Torben Betts, is set in a designer flat owned by Mat (sic) and Jess (the excellent Jack Johns and Annabel Bates) who fashionably fret about their “ambitious mortgage” and are about to have a marital meltdown involving an Australian electrician.

In January 2010 they host an intimate dinner party (Monkfish stew) for Jack’s old college chum, Simon, and the self absorbed Karen (played with luminosity and knowing looks by Charlotte Pyke). Jess’s wayward sister Annie (the extraordinary Nicole Abraham) unexpectedly brings her new man. Tony is older than Annie, a 60-year old-lush who’s found fame as a theatre director and Annie, tickled by his casting couch attentions, is to marry him. Jess is appalled, particularly when he makes advances to her in the kitchen.

Timid but manic Karen – still grieving for the dead Julian with whom she had shared three idealistic years – now works for Marie Curie, spouts minutiae and is competitively right on.

Simon arrives and the small talk starts. “What did you do at uni?” asks Karen. No small answers from Simon: “I mostly studied the emptiness of my own soul.” And so we meet the deeply flawed, very sad but brilliantly comedic Simon (the terrific Ralph Aitken).

Performed in the round, it’s entirely set in the kitchen area. The perimeter is littered with piles of rubble, keying in with the regular references to the Haiti earthquake of 2010.

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Betts is clearly an observant and skilled writer and has drawn half a dozen characters that are flawed, funny, damaged and grotesque. The action runs along at a terrific lick and there are some meaty lines for all members of this accomplished cast.

But what’s it all about? Why are we watching all their little dramas being played out? Loads of answers arrive, present themselves and disappear like a pricked soap bubble just as the next one comes along. Ambition, inequality, hypocrisy, infidelity, materialism ... all are briefly examined and, again, Haiti gets a mention. This would have made a cracking 45 minute radio drama but, despite excellent performances, there is simply not enough to fill almost two hours of stage time.

Rating: Three stars