Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review: 'Unfaithful' at Found111, 30th August 2016

Behind a nondescript doorway on Charing Cross Road, up a winding spiral of dusty staircases and through a cocktail bar lies Found111. It's a small, intimate room with a low ceiling, a traverse stage and minimal ventilation (free bottles of water are provided). I like to think I've seen most stages in this town, yet occasionally even I'm surprised by what lies tucked away behind great, grey facades of central London.

This claustrophobic hothouse proves a great place to stage Owen McCafferty's Unfaithful: a sinewy, fast-paced and aggressively written treatise on dying relationships, existential paranoia and the commodification of fucking. 

At the core are two couples who've unknowingly fallen into each other's orbit. Plumber Tom and dinnerlady Joan are in their 50s and both sense death at their shoulder. They worry that their lives have been pointless and question why they've shackled themselves to each other. But the younger couple, gigolo Peter and Tesco till jockey Tara have their own set of problems. Tara is drifting through life in quietly fuzzy nihilism; young, beautiful and smart, but lacking permanence. Meanwhile Peter is a great gigolo, professional, courteous and almost infinitely virile, yet senses that this way of life is a cosy rut that cannot last.

All four are building houses on the sand, their mutual desperation causing them to pair up in various sexual configurations. All the sex lights the touchpaper for the abusive arguments that form the meat of the play.

Dialogue and performances are subtly unnaturalistic in a way that (for me) recalled Patrick Marber's Closer. Real people don't bicker with such verbosity and flights of rhetoric, so what we see here bears about as much resemblance to reality as Olympic fencing does to a back-alley knife fight. But the heightened reality distills a buttload of complexity into a small space: if you've ever gotten into trouble for bumping uglies with someone you shouldn't have, you'll find something to wince at here.

Dig a little deeper and the sex becomes a symptom of problems rather than the cause. Each character seeks some way to find some glimmer of care and happiness in an uncaring world. Tom explains that standing on a busy street and knowing there's someone next to you who wants you can mean everything in the world. Joan opens her soul in an extraordinarily cathartic rant about men, then demands to be roughly fucked up the arse. Meanwhile Peter uses sex as a way to liberate himself from minimum wage bondage; being a gigolo is exceeding preferable to working in a call centre and having people bitch down the phone to you all day. Tara just wants something solid and trustworthy to cling to, and a working class plumber fits the bill.

After tying itself into a sexual pretzel, Unfaithful gently unwinds in the final scenes. Tom delivers a fantastic and frayed monologue about the pointlessness of existence, imagining his tiny life swept away in the face of apocalypse. In this McCafferty strips back sexual desire to it's base component: the desire to leave some kind of mark on the world that will persist after death, be it the core reproductive instinct or simply, as Tom puts it, to touch more human beings in your life.

All four performances are great, each actor obviously relishing navigating McCafferty's stylised, aggressive writing. No individual stands out, though a couple of moments lodge in the brain. Among them are Niamh Cusack's "cunt" studded takedown of masculinity; Ruta Gedmintas' forward yet clumsy sexual come-ons, her feline features giving her a predatory aura; and Matthew Lewis rapid cycling through prostitution backstories to find what his client wants (Neville Longbottom is now but a distant memory). But for me, the heart of the play is in Sean Campion's Tom, who reminding me of a wounded bear. He's powerful, broken and looks lost - still with a smidge of vitality, yet standing right on the cusp of genuine old-age.

It's a great play; pacey, well-performed and staged with a minimum of fuss. At just 70 minutes without interval fleshes out its characters and conveys its message without out-staying its welcome. More like this please.


Unfaithful is at Theatre111 until 8 October 2016. Tickets here.

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