“Were you waiting for me to walk through the door? This isn’t Jane Austen’s England, Susie, you could’ve walked through it too.”
Bringing a much welcomed shot of sharp comedy to a dull January, Becky Shaw is the first play of 2011 for Islington’s Almeida Theatre. Written by American Gina Gionfriddo and directed by Peter DuBois, also over from the States and who directed this show there too, it really is a breath of fresh air and one of the funniest shows I have seen in ages.
Newlyweds Suzanna and Andrew set up her adoptive brother Max with a new work colleague Becky Shaw in an attempt to break his run of three-month relationships, but their matchmaking has huge consequences as a disastrous first date leads to a series of events that causes everyone to seriously question the relationships they have built up with each other and wonder what the future could, or should, hold for them. The play questions their moral obligations to everyone, strangers and family alike.
Gionfriddo’s writing is highly witty and intelligent, with a contemporary American take on love and relationships and often feels quite televisual, especially given the structure of the play with its shifting locations. And her talent is clear in that she has created a set of characters here who are all deeply human in their characteristics, flaws and all, and the way they manipulate those closest to them in order to get what they want: there are no perfect relationships here but no outright villains either, if this play had a flavour it would be bittersweet.
At the heart of the play is the relationship between the adopted siblings Max and Suzanna and this carried supremely well by both David Wilson Barnes and Anna Madeley. Wilson Barnes originated the role in the US and it shows with an effortlessly confident performance as the business-minded and commitment-phobe Max who nonetheless has a deep lasting attachment to his adopted family that he can’t shake and he has some of the funniest lines you will hear on the stage this year.
Madeley is also excellent as the neurotic Suzanna with a great gift for comedy and combining fragility with a steely edge as she realises the threats posed by those around her to her happiness. And Daisy Haggard as the titular Becky Shaw brings a great dryness, a bit reminiscent of Ileana Douglas actually, to the woman whose relentless search for love and happiness causes so very much havoc in everyone’s life with her determination to not let go of this potential future.
I loved Haydn Gwynne’s acerbic mother Susan and wished she had been utilised more as her cutting wit was the highlight of both scenes she was in. Her incisive remarks about the attitudes of her children’s generation, recalled some of the interplay in Bartlett’s Love Love Love especially around the frustrated ambitions of many of the children of the Baby Boomers and their different approaches to marriage. The impossibly handsome Vincent Montuel did well too as the overbearingly sensitive Andrew, hinting at the darker, more selfish motivations behind his hero complex.
Jonathan Fensom’s design is really quite superb and works with the challenges of the intimate space of the Almeida perfectly, considering that the eight scenes of this play take place in a range of cities on the Eastern seaboard. Fensom has created a revolve which is flexible enough, using flying walls and curtains and a great range of props, to create the necessary range of rooms from the pokey hotel room to the newlyweds’ cosy apartment to Susan’s plush familial home. The backstage team effect these changes extremely effectively which were impressively smooth and pacey too, with a punchy soundtrack of contemporary tunes including the Killers, Feist and Kaiser Chiefs (plus a bit of Sonny & Cher) covering the transitions.
I can’t recommend this enough and suggest that you get booking tickets now as this could well sell out, not least as a word of mouth success if the chat coming out of the theatre and on Twitter is anything to go by (this was a preview performance by the way, it opens on Thursday 20th January) but I hope it gets excellent press reviews as it really does deserve them. A highly intelligent and sharply observed comedy which asks searching questions, but most importantly genuinely makes you laugh.