Theatre review: Muswell Hill at the White Bear Theatre, SE11

The dinner party setting is fruitful as a landscape for writers, enabling an easy shortcut to collide disparate personalities for conflict. In some ways, the obvious utility of the setting has led to a saturation point on the theatre stage.

Talented playwright Torben Betts, however, has attempted his best to light a flame from this damp wood. More often than not he succeeds.

The year is 2010 and the month is January. In Haiti, an earthquake has claimed the lives of a hundred thousand people. Many more are homeless. In the leafy suburbs of affluent Muswell Hill, six individuals converge for monkfish stew and avocado and prawns. They will take turns to digress on their solipsistic concerns; each so wrapped up and in thrall to their own personal woe that they are oblivious to the existence of those around them. That is aside from fleeting references to the outside tragedy, which is tossed off with the odd sympathetic remark like an involuntary guilt-easing reflex.

The hosts, Jess (Annabel Bates) and Mat (Jack Johns), are on the precipice. Mat has only just caught wind of a rumour that Jess is having an affair. His friend Simon (Alastair Natkiel) is a wired teacher-in-waiting. He is socially inept. And yet he is not alone. Jess’s friend, Karen (Fiona Rodrigo), is much the same. Once Jess’s sister arrives with both a partner and a bombshell in tow, the sparks truly start to fly.

Small verbal missiles are tossed indiscriminately, fuelled by pre-empted resentments and alcohol. Along with the giddy libation comes startling emotional conflagrations, which char the atmosphere to a point of no return come the second act. Although this is a uniformly well executed piece, it is nigh-on impossible to ignore the stunning disintegration of Simon. Alastair Natkiel’s performance is so explosive that he threatens to overshadow the remainder of this talented cast.

Ultimately, the synergy of incompatibility is explored with devastating impact by Betts. The first half is unsteady, but the second half makes good of the ticket price and more.

Rating: Four stars

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