“you’ll go and you’ll have a good time, but there’s not much of a lasting impression”
Since its inception in 2015, Four Play has more or less consistently had a production somewhere in London – a feat that usually only Shakespeare and Chekhov achieve. Does that mean Jake Brunger’s play is of the same calibre? Alas, not quite.
Four Play’s plot is kickstarted when Rafe (Ashley Byam) and Pete (Keeran Blessie), getting some serious FOMO from being each other’s only ever partners for the past seven years, proposition their friend Michael (Declan Spaine) to sleep with each of them to get all their anxieties out of their systems, which ultimately exposes the cracks in their relationship, as well as the jealousies in the supposedly polygamous arrangement Michael has with Andrew (Marc MacKinnon). The play gently touches on the idea of monogamy and whether the traditions of heterosexual relationships can simply be transposed onto homosexual relationships, although if you’re seeking a deep and nuanced exploration then look elsewhere; this is mostly frivolous stuff.
Brunger’s script is full of quips about labradoodles and your nan watching porn, and can sometimes feel like it relies on them a little too heavily to mask a lack of substance. This especially shows in what are clearly some updates to the references in the script – an exasperating gag about Apple TV stuck out as a particular offender. The writing does find moments of really juicy tension – a dinner party with all four characters was a notable highlight, in which Rafe and Pete try to maintain a lie that they’re unaware Andrew already knows is a lie. The script also moves at an excellent pace for the most part, although the final few scenes outstay their welcome a little.
The performances are also a mixed bag – Byam is radiantly energetic as Rafe but he and Blessie struggle to find chemistry, while Spaine’s aloofness teeters into an unengaged apathy a little too often. MacKinnon finds a lovely amount of depth in Andrew, with a standout performance at the aforementioned dinner party, and some very poignant moments with Rafe. The actors overall feel somewhat over-directed by Matthew Iliffe, resulting in an inauthenticity that makes it clear when someone’s been told to sit down or move across the stage or gesticulate in a certain way, which is a shame as Carrie-Ann Stein’s modern kitchen set design establishes a genuine domesticity so effectively.
Four Play ultimately feels like fast food theatre. Like a trip to McDonalds, you’ll go and you’ll have a good time, but there’s not much of a lasting impression and there’s nothing to really chew on.
“fretfully provocative and painfully relevant, and it gives us a whole lot to think about”
Though it might be said of many a time in history, the debate on power distribution seems particularly prevalent at this political moment, and the argument between generations seems louder than ever, with terms such as ‘generation snowflake’ being bandied about. Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, as directed by Matthew Illife, is a timely discussion between young and old, majority and minority, and radical and moderate.
Zoe (Moronkę Akinola), a young black student, and her professor Janine (Janie Dee), a white woman of obvious privilege, are poring over a first draft of Zoe’s thesis. What begins as an interesting discussion between two enthusiasts morphs into a gritty debate on the innately imperialist structure of academia and history’s stress on the white experience. The argument becomes personal very quickly, as is made clear to us by a soundtrack (Kate Marlais) of a low thrum and a heartbeat, confirming that things have turned nasty. This is pretty much the only sound used throughout, appearing again halfway through the second act, and it seems a bit unnecessary and patronising.
That being said, tension rises so early in the play that it’s perhaps necessary to continuously raise the bar. Whilst Zoe clearly has cause to be frustrated with the system, Akinola plays her more like a petulant child for the first half. Stomping around her professor’s office, avoiding eye contact, it feels more like a fight between a mother and her teenage daughter than between an esteemed academic and a promising student. The argument’s peak is lost in her almost constant state of fury where it might have had more punch if she had deferred her outrage slightly.
Akinola is quite a force on stage, however, and whilst her character choices don’t necessarily serve the play, her commitment to the role is tremendous.
Dee’s American accent is a little shaky and it gets in the way of her delivery for the first twenty minutes or so, but regardless, it feels as though she might have ad-libbed half the play, so natural are her mannerisms and emotional turns.
With an audience on three sides and an office-desk setting (Rachel Stone), the staging is always going to be tricky. The solution, it seems, is to keep both performers moving at all times, circling each other like cage fighters, in order to avoid having someone’s back to the audience throughout. It feels unlikely in this particular scenario, but maybe that’s how professors’ office hours are in the US?
No matter how it’s staged, the text itself will always, I think, make for uncomfortable viewing, pitting idealism against pragmatism; negotiating for improvements versus demanding immediate change. It’s an interesting discussion, but I’m not convinced these were the characters to have it: Though she isn’t without nuance, Zoe seems a slightly unfair and unkind representation of a completely sound point of view where Janine, though certainly flawed, comes off as charming and reasonable. It’s not a fair fight.
There’s no doubt The Niceties brings certain necessary and urgent conversations to the table, and whilst it doesn’t quite strike an even tone, it is fretfully provocative and painfully relevant, and it gives us a whole lot to think about.