“a very human story that pulls off the almost impossible feat of making you feel nostalgic for Thatcher’s Britain”
It is 1984 in London, and while Thatcher and Scargill are at loggerheads over the miner’s strike elsewhere, the city is setting the scene for its own battles in a time of cultural upheaval. There was a revolutionary spirit, partly fuelled by the property boom, that eventually found itself in the hands of the satirists. While Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech echoed from Wall Street, our home grown “Loadsamoney” became a national catchphrase. But among the cacophony, a quieter voice, in the shape of the late writer Stephen Jeffreys, captured the mood with far more humanity and subtlety. “Valued Friends” was the play that launched Jeffreys’ career and won him the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Award for most Promising Playwright.
In its first major revival in thirty years, the comedy and pathos still resonate in today’s turbulent economic and political climate. Yet the beauty of Jeffreys’ writing lies in his refusal to allow the social issues to take centre stage. They are merely the backdrop to the razor-sharp depiction of the characters, which makes his writing both era specific and timeless.
In a basement flat in Earls Court, four friends in their mid-thirties are scrabbling to keep their heads above water. They are thrown unexpectedly into a battle of nerves when a young, confident property developer offers them a substantial fee to vacate their home. Spurred on by the revolutions of their time, they quickly realise that they hold all the cards in this real-life game of Monopoly and, over the course of three years, they manipulate the burgeoning property market. But much more is at stake than a few quid, and that is what the audience cares about.
“How much do you care?” asks quirky, stand-up comic Sherry in the opening line. It is the beginning of a hilarious monologue about her journey home on the Underground, one of many delivered by Natalie Casey in a spellbinding performance that is a master class in comic timing. Meanwhile Michael Marcus’ Howard, an academic writing about the corruption of capitalism, is succumbing to the attraction of the pound signs waved in front of him. Marion and Paul make up the close-knit foursome destined to be torn apart. “You used to get some really good conversation in this flat. Burning issues and moral dilemmas and things. Now all everyone talks about is money”. Sam Frenchum, as Paul, brilliantly sheds his comic mantle as the keen music journalist to become the earnest home improvement enthusiast, while Catrin Stewart’s straight-talking, pragmatic Marion manages to pull our heartstrings as she discovers that the more she gains, the more she has to lose – on a purely personal level. Ralph Davis’ meticulously pitched estate agent, Scott, is a brilliant work of satire. Far from being a Mephistophelian figure he merely dangles the carrot. But show stealer is Nicholas Tennant as Stewart, who only appears in the second act as the hilarious, surreally philosophical builder.
Michael Fentiman’s sharp direction brings out the best of the actors on Michael Taylor’s simple yet ingenious set, that transforms in time-lapse motion from a scruffy basement flat to a swish, desirable property. This is a very human story that pulls off the almost impossible feat of making you feel nostalgic for Thatcher’s Britain. Richard Hammarton’s eighties soundtrack highlights the best of the decade, just as these characters shed a warm light on the heart of the matter. It’s a skilfully written and performed piece of modern satire: you shouldn’t like these people but, in answer to the opening question of the play, you care an awful lot.
“A trust in Camus runs through the piece, but Okri is also unafraid to interrogate him”
We are going to die, all of us, no matter who we are, no matter what we try. This is true. In the knowledge that our fates our sealed, and given the constant humiliation of living, the only question is why carry on at all, let alone struggle? This is the central problem of absurdism, the strain of existentialism developed by Albert Camus; the conclusion of Meursault – the disconnected protagonist of his most celebrated novel – is that there is no reason. And yet he carries on existing. Roaring with the urgency of the original, Ben Okri’s adaptation of L’Étranger for stage demands that once more we face its shattering questions.
His mother dies, but Meursault cannot recall when, let alone how old she was. He is uninterested in seeing her body, smokes and drinks coffee in the presence of her coffin, and falls asleep at her funeral. For him these facts are as irrelevant as whether or not he even loved her (though, he supposes, he probably did). There is no spite in his heart, only indifference, and incomprehension at the values of others. Though he is casually happy in the arms of his girlfriend (who, he supposes, he doesn’t really love), or watching films, or swimming in the warm seas off the Algerian coast, his inability to engage in society’s fictions condemns him. It condemns him when he doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, when he shows no concern at his neighbour beating a woman, when he displays no interest in career or marriage, and ultimately when he kills a man.
To translate such an austere, interior novel to theatre requires a unique intuition into its ideas, and Okri displays nothing less. As a starting point, he samples directly from the original text, allowing Meursault’s monologues to cut right through each scene. Not only do Camus’ words serve as an anchor to the piece, but the manner in which they are used immediately isolates Meursault. The world is made to appear as trivial to us as it does to him, often to the point of hilarity. Okri generates a dream-like environment, beyond which we too would only see him as the outsider.
A trust in Camus runs through the piece, but Okri is also unafraid to interrogate him. On the subject of the murdered man, a nameless Arab (referred to exclusively as “the Arab” in the novel), Okri seems uneasy with Meursault’s -and possibly Camus’- disposal of him as a tool to reaffirm the former’s humanity. In a political climate replete with anti-Islamic sentiment (and given Algeria’s own fractious past), Okri has explicitly expressed the desire to give the murdered man agency. Rather than significantly alter the narrative, however, the man returns as a ghost at Meursault’s trial. In this way Okri extends to him Camus’ universal philosophy rather than – as Meursault later says about himself – excluding him from the proceedings. It is not a rebuttal of Camus but a dialogue, and one that serves to strengthen the piece’s resolve rather than diminish it.
Led by Sam Frenchum’s Meursault, in two hours not a single beat is missed by the cast. Every actor’s performance is a keystone in Camus and Okri’s towering theses. In such an essentially collaborative effort, singling out performances may be a hollow gesture. Nonetheless, it is the furious dialogues of David Carlyle, Tessa Bell-Briggs, and John Barrow in the second act’s courtroom scene that distils the strange logic surrounding Meursault (in spite of his guilt) into a final, terrifying conclusion. Meanwhile Frenchum manages, impressively, to capture both Meursault’s detachment and the strange empathy he evokes; the enormity and the comedy of absurdism both haunt his withdrawn expression. The pace of each scene is erratic -some quick and matter of fact, others lingering past the point of meaning – but Meursault’s calm is constant. The spacious, sparse set, often only lit by a single beam of light seems to reflect his mood and though the piece is full of action, his stillness overwhelms.
As brutal as the core notion of absurdism appears, and as nihilistic – perhaps even as immoral – as Meursault may seem to be, Camus’ final argument is one of breathtaking optimism. The very idea skewers the trivialities of modern existence, summed up by Meursault’s refusal to engage meaningfully with them. This does not mean that the trivialities have no consequences, but only from a position beyond them can a person ask the question, is life worth living? In both L’Étranger and his classic essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus concludes that, although our fate may be determined, perhaps even because of it, we are uniquely free to build our own meaning of life. Perhaps then, for the first time, we can really live.
Okri’s adaptation is both a questioning and an answering of this argument, and by returning to it now, he reaffirms my suspicion that in such obviously absurd times, the inherent absurdity of choosing to live becomes all the more important.