“Growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional”
Entering the Royal Court upstairs for Anya Reiss’ second play The Acid Test is a little delight as Paul Wills’ design of grimy corridors winds round the space to lead us into the small London flat that three girls in their early 20s share. Reiss’ first play Spur of the Moment was lauded with awards so there’s a certain level of expectation here that lies on her young shoulders that is met in most, if not quite all, part.
Reiss’ gift is clearly in characterisation and the creation of believable and effective dialogue. As we’re flung headlong into the world of these flatmates, there is great wit and huge likeability generated from the off as displayed by Phoebe Fox as the slightly dippy but hilarious Ruth with her boyfriend dramas and Vanessa Kirby’s self-possessed Dana who has her own issues balancing her work and sex life. Their other flatmate is Jessica whose arrival back at the flat with her father Jim, who has been kicked out by his wife, precipitates the long night of drinking and soul-searching that makes up this play.
Jim’s appearance causes only a minor disruption in the flow of the vodka, as they soon become accustomed to his presence but his real impact is much slower to emerge as he shines a light on the relationships between these girls and indeed how they perceive themselves. Reiss has captured perfectly the trials and tribulations of young (female) adulthood here: the ease with which one can be seduced by grand ideas; the employment of flirtatiousness with reckless abandon; the independence that is craved from parental influence. And as Jim insinuates his way into the affections of the flatmates, the audience flinches along with Jess at the antics of her embarrassing dad and the feeling that he might just make a move on one of her friends, Denis Lawson in brilliant form here balancing great comic work with the suggestion of something darker never too far away.
This first section works wonderfully but as the play progresses, it loses something of its way as Reiss resorts to something close to convention as a series of increasingly contrived incidents to provide drama where it might have been nice to see her continue to explore the conversational dynamic which works so well and led to interesting insights which could have been pursued further. Instead, we are witness to Jessica and her father wrangling through their non-existent relationship, the problem being it is as non-existent on the page as it is onstage and not even Lydia Wilson’s valiant efforts can bring effective life to what isn’t there. And we see the repercussions of decisions made by the other two girls but the accompanying tonal shift doesn’t ring emotionally true and a conclusion which is clumsily executed cast a little shadow over the final portion of the play.
There’s much to enjoy here in The Acid Test and much to suggest that Reiss is an interesting playwright with much potential if she can develop the same gift for plotting that she already has in spades in her characterisations and dialogue.