“We don’t let just anyone live here”
Whether it’s Wisteria Lane or pampas grass out the front, secret goings-on in the suburbs have long been the subject of fascination and stand-up comedian Matthew Osborn is no exception with his debut play Cul-de-Sac, first seen in Edinburgh in 2011 and now running for a month at Battersea’s Theatre503. But where the most recognisable reference point might be The Stepford Wives, Osborn flips his focus onto the husbands of suburbia to examine the impact of strange events from a different angle.
Portly, middle-aged Tim moves into a respectable cul-de-sac in some unidentified corner of middle England with his wife and teenage daughter for a discreetly uneventful way of life. But from the very first meeting with his neighbour Nigel, brandishing an ominous-looking bin bag, it is clear there is a price to be paid for the quiet life. Certain standards are rigorously upheld to keep the eerie calm of the street in place but more than that, everyone seems to be in thrall to unseen kingpin Tony Devereux.
Thus an extremely dark comedy emerges as Alan Francis’ Tim tries to resist being suckered into a world where Tony takes what he wants – other people’s wives, daughters, luxury holidays… – and no-one can stop him. His journey is counterpointed by Mike Hayley’s Nigel, initially thoroughly indoctrinated in the ways of the cul-de-sac but soon dreaming of a world beyond as Tim increasingly usurps his place in this mini-society. The pair of actors both work the humorous notes well, especially in a hilariously pathetic scuffle and Osborn’s script is full of zingy one-liners. And along with Julian Dutton’s sinisterly amusing Dr Cole, there’s actually something quite neat about the play’s sole focus on men of a certain age.
But though there’s a whole world of issues touched upon, Osborn skitters over them without ever settling on one to any satisfying degree. Repressed homosexuality, the exercise of dictatorial mind control over a society, xenophobic middle-England attitudes, the efficacy of anti-depressants, the sexual politics of wife-swapping, even if just one of these had been explored in more depth, alongside the excellent absurdist vein of humour, Cul-de-Sac might fulfil the potential it hints at to actually lead somewhere.