Review: Hello/Goodbye, Hampstead Downstairs

“Shirt on, shirt off, I’m relaxed…”

The oddest thing happened whilst watching the beginning of the second half of Peter Souter’s play Hello/Goodbye downstairs at the Hampstead as huge waves of déjà vu started to kick in. After a few minutes, it finally clicked that I wasn’t going mad and had completely forgotten a play I’d seen but rather that I had actually heard it before as a radio play last year. That’s Mine, This Is Yours was an Afternoon Drama on Radio 4 and though slightly different – and of course with an additional 42 minute first act in front of it – it played out pretty much as I remembered it. Which was a shame as the ending really bugged me.

But first to the beginning. Souter’s debut stage play opens on a hot summer’s day in a flat full of packing boxes as Juliet arrives at the new place she is renting only to find that a mix-up with the estate agents had resulted in Alex already being given the keys and he’s midway through his unpacking. They instantly rub each other the wrong way – he’s somewhere in geek territory being a keen collector of all sorts of ephemera and she’s been living life hard in the fast lane, too hard as it turns out – but both being unattached young singletons, chemistry builds up in this real-time environment and explodes.

Tamara Harvey’s production handles this first half excellently thanks to some pitch-perfect casting. Jo Herbert captures the abrasive forthrightness of Juliet, a whirlwind of intensity who one can well imagine ripping through the lives of her friends as she does, and Andy Rush has the adorable nerd schtick down to a T, full of dry wit and his own kind of confidence and though there’s little new in the coming together of a mis-matched couple, it is entertaining in the watching.

The second half fast-forwards 10 years to the flat full of boxes once again, except this time Juliet and Sam are moving out, divorcing due to irreconcilable differences and so the show takes on a more pensive tone as they pick apart what went wrong whilst dividing up what remains of their shared possessions. There’s much loveliness here too in the not-quite-bitter recriminations of something gone wrong, the testing of each other’s previous commitment or otherwise to the relationship, the challenge to remember the most details about better times.

But once I’d recalled that I knew what lay ahead, I couldn’t escape remembering how excellent Tamsin Greig (as fate would have it, acting in the theatre upstairs in Longing) and Alex Jennings were as the radio versions, bringing a weightier experience and resignedness to the interplay between, suggesting a greater sense of loss than perhaps we get from this younger couple here. An unfair comparison to make maybe, but it really was a most disconcerting experience to sit through – I really wish I’d known in advance. But for £12, you can’t go wrong here with a spikily fresh piece of theatre that deserves more attention.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 30th March

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