Following on from the mammoth successes of the over-rated Jerusalem and the equally highly praised Enron, The Priory has a lot to live up to in maintaining the Royal Court’s current run. A new play by Matthew Wynne, it follows a group of 30-something old friends as they convene on a country house to celebrate New Year’s Eve away from the rat race. Brought together by their mutual friend Kate for reasons of her own, secrets are uncovered and tempers flare as the frustrations of modern living are brought into sharp relief and the question of ‘what is success’ is repeatedly challenged.
Jessica Hynes’s Kate is the emotional centre of this work. Sifting through the emotional detritus of a highly traumatic year, her search for some kind of meaning is what drives the play. Whether its seeking refuge in the company of old friends, the solace of an old love or the temptation of a new faith, Kate’s attempts to deal with her angst seem doomed to failure, and her loneliness, even when surrounded by others is heartbreaking to watch: I found Hynes to be utterly convincing in this part.
She is ably supported by two fine performances by Rachael Stirling and Charlotte Riley. Stirling’s self-satisfied Rebecca is a high-flying career woman and yummy mummy and hysterically indiscreet with the feelings of her friends, trampling around with the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, all the while demanding undevoted attention to the every detail of her childrens’ lives. And Riley’s relative inexperience compared to the rest of the cast is scarcely noticeable in a great turn as Laura, the outsider in this group, desperately trying to ingratiate herself into her new fiance’s circle, the “I’m a friend of the gays” scene is particularly well-played and her deterioration as the night continues was painfully and gorily effective.
I found The Priory to be sharply written and acutely observed: it’s as funny a new play as I have seen in a while, with some excellent character acting on display. And whilst it may not have dealt with larger themes of its predecessors, I think there is something to be said for a play that focuses more on the minutiae of daily living, something that should resonate with everyone.
Wynne has done less well with his male characters though. Joseph Millson (who has the distinction of being the first actor who I’ve seen in three separate productions since starting this blog in January) was the strongest of the men: his sensitively portrayed gay architect felt authentic, especially in his indignation at the constant perceived digs at his ‘lifestyle’ being somehow less valid than the heterosexual norm perpetrated by the others. It was then a nice touch to have him arrange for a Gaydar hook-up to arrive during their stay, but not play out how he imagined. However, I felt none of the other male characters were particularly well done: Rupert Penry-Jones’ dithering cheating husband spends too long on the sidelines watching the women in his life, and whilst Alastair Mackenzie gave a great comic performance as a highly realistic iPhone addict, his character felt really quite underwritten, never really being fleshed out to a point where we could actually engage with him.