Saturday, February 20, 2016

'Four Play' at Theatre503, 19th February 2016

Long term relationships can be a tremulous beast You can be spun up in the thrill and happiness of love one minute, then glance over at your partner the next and think "Is this really the face I want to wake up next to for the rest of my life?

On the positive side committing to a long-term monogamous relationship is a panoply of joys; the comfortable pleasure in living life knowing that you're not facing the world alone.On the negative side: there's a whole world of hotties out there whose doors are now closed. You start to realise that your chances of ever getting your end away with (as a random example) a fittie from Botswana are shrinking dramatically each day.

Fear of missing out is what powers Jake Brunger's Four Play. Rafe (Cai Brigden) and Pete (Michael Gilbert) have been together for 7 1/2 years. They met in university while both closeted and, as such, they're "never so much has brushed against another man!". They insist that their relationship is a happy one, yet each confesses a curiosity as to what the world holds.

Enter Michael (Peter Hannah), a man with "a reputation". He's in an open relationship with Andrew (Michael James), a mutual friend from university. As if making a business case, Rafe timidly and awkwardly enquires whether Michael would be interested in spending a night alone with each of them, satisfying their respective sexual curiosities in order to save their relationship.

Following this relatively simple request, things spiral into a soup of confusion, recrimination and confusion. The four men have to evaluate their relationships with each other and their opinions of monogamy, each reaching very different conclusions about what they desire from romance and sex.

Four Play is remarkably incisive about modern relationships. A gaggle of popular hook-up apps presents us with a smörgåsbord of sweaty, sticky, promiscuous flesh - all begging for your hovering finger to tap the 'message me' button. Even if you're not actively browsing some of your friends probably are, and it can be difficult to suppress the green-eyed monster as they recount their latest lascivious conquests.

Brunger uses his characters to approach this brave new world from four different angles. Michael is immersed in it, Pete wants to dive in, Rafe is uncertain and Andrew is perfectly content with monogamy. As the narrative develops each individual is put through a crucible, having to align themselves with sexual freedom or monogamous commitment.

It does all this smartly and effectively. On top of that, Four Play is totally fucking hilarious. Each of these actors has razor-sharp comic timing, mining every last atom of laughter from already funny material.

Personal highlights were Michael's sudden slide into screeching dominance of a nervously aroused Pete, all swishing whip and leaping into sudden crouches, the opening scene in which Rafe gently dances around what he's asking and Andrew's insouciant manipulation of a casual dinner party.

Last week in my review of My Son's Husband I argued that it was successful because it got a couple of chuckles from me. Four Play had me (and the rest of the audience) in convulsions of laughter, to the point where the actors had to repeat lines that were drowned out by the audience's pleasure. I'm not going to spoil any of the best gags, but seriously, be assured this is one seriously goddamn hilarious bit of playwriting.

Thing is, the play is so funny that when the narrative takes a turn for the emotionally sincere in the final act, it's a bit disappointing. There comes a definite moment where the laughter stops, and from then on we're expected to engage with the narrative with straightforward empathy. 

This abrupt gear-change is clearly intentional: comedy is inherently distancing (we laugh at rather than with his characters), so it's disappearance forces us to take things seriously. It works - by this point Brunger has done the heavy-lifting in getting us to care about his characters. Still, honestly, I didn't enjoy the climactic scenes half as much as I'd enjoyed the earlier, funnier stuff.

Four Play is easy to recommend. The cast are committed, the set is strikingly pretty (thanks Cecilia Carey) and director Jonathan O'Boyle knows how to accentuate the many pleasures of Brunger's excellent script. Even so, the last act is a tonal shift too far for my taste, especially when what's come before has been so delectably delicious.

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