Four Play (Above the Stag, until February 22nd)
Relationships in the 21st Century are explored and issues of love and life are examined in Jake Brunger’s witty and thoughtful Four Play, being staged in the wonderfully refurbished Studio at Above the Stag Theatre.
The fact that attitudes have changed and broadened when it comes to commitment and connections with others may well have provided the impetus for the play to be written in 2014, but at its heart is a desire to be open and honest rather than secretive, a plea for candour above covertness.
The themes explored are utterly contemporary, exploring the life and thoughts of couples who want to settle down and have a family on the one hand and those who prefer the temptation of short and sweet online hook-ups on the other.
One couple in the play – Pete and Rafe – have been together for more than seven years yet feel that the rut in which they find themselves may have something to do with their sexual inexperience and their longstanding monogamy. The other couple – Andrew and Michael – are far more open though, they feel, no less committed.
Pete and Rafe’s “simple” solution is to ask Michael to spend a night with each of them in turn without telling Andrew, a proposal that draws out comedy as well as heartache, with complications inevitable.
The well-drawn performances from all four cast members are never less than entirely credible, with the distinct personalities of each played exceptionally strongly. It helps that each actor seems to understand precisely what Brunger expects in his writing, catching the pauses, rhythms, rise and falls perfectly.
We get the measure of Rafe from his nervous opening monologue thanks to Ashley Byam’s earnest performance, never afraid to highlight the character’s vulnerabilities and desire for romance and sensitivity. This is balanced by the more demanding Pete, who has instigated the proposition, with an edgy Keeran Blessie yearning for excitement and adventure at the expense of commitment.
Declan Spaine’s Michael is a multi-faceted object of desire for the three other characters and succeeds in portraying the complex role of the careless and promiscuous Grindr user and loving partner.
Marc MacKinnon pulls off what is probably the most difficult character in Andrew, someone with a delicate hold on his sense of self-worth and who is a far from obvious partner for the athletic and alluring Michael. It is he who cuts through everything that is going on and makes the key point about valuing who you are and being honest to yourself and your loved ones in any relationship.
The four characters are rarely on stage together, but when they are – in the awkward dinner party scene – the audience is on the edge of their seats as events and revelations built to an uncomfortable climax.
What is notable and pleasing about Four Play – which in some ways could be seen as a companion to Afterglow, staged recently at Southwark Playhouse and Waterloo East Theatre – is a brutal honesty which is sincere rather than salacious.
Accomplished director Matthew Iliffe maintains a crackling intensity and ensures that our sympathies are always with the characters and if the audience is a fly on the wall it is more about being privy to the unpacking of thoughts and reasoning than about being entertained at a peepshow.
While the situations sometimes border on the farcical the strength of this production is to recognise and relate the authenticity of the conundrum without losing the humour; laugh out loud moments never sit awkwardly alongside the serious issues portrayed.
Carrie-Ann Stein’s modern white kitchen set is used well with Jack Weir’s shades of lighting allowing it to be used for either apartment and even a nightclub.
Incidentally, the revamped Studio venue – now virtually a smaller 60-seat version of the 100-seater main house – is very smart and impressive and it will be interesting to see with future productions if it offers the exciting flexibility of its previous layout.
The play features two gay couples yet there is something in the strength of the writing which suggests it could be played out by any mix of genders in the quartet, looking as it does at communication, uncomfortable truths and relationship realities in contemporary life.
It is certainly possible for it to resonate with anyone with questions about relationships and this production finds its breadth and depth thanks to a pleasing intensity in writing, directing and performance.
Images: PBG Studios