Review: Fifty Words, Arcola Theatre

“This, so there’s no ambiguity, is foreplay”

The thin line between love and hate in married couples is a well-explored one dramatically but whilst Michael Weller’s Fifty Words may not cover any huge amount of new ground in revisiting this territory, this Theatre Royal Bath and Arcola Theatre co-production is blessed with two excoriatingly intense and bruisingly emotional performances from Claire Price and Richard Clothier. Between them, they perfectly capture the vicissitudes and complexities of a long-term relationship and the strains that accompany the successes.

Janine and Adam are relishing a rare opportunity to spend the evening together when their 9-year-old son Greg goes on his first sleepover. Adam’s got champagne in the fridge and a Chinese takeaway decanted into their best new serving dishes in anticipation of some long overdue sexy time but Janine’s got one eye on a presentation for a new work client the next day and so starts a downwards-spiralling rollercoaster as this couple decide to rip each other apart as opposed to ripping each other’s clothes off (although as we see, the two are not mutually exclusive), laying bare the dire state of their marriage.

Spread over one endless night and confined to the one room, Weller’s canvas is necessarily small but this allows him to come up with copious amounts of whip-sharp dialogue as increasingly envenomed banter bounces back and forth and the pendulum swings from hate to love and back again and back again. But strong as this is, one can’t help but feel a little wearied by it – little is done to create any empathy for either party in this affair and it’s hard to imagine that this couple could have made it this far without killing each other.

So it is to Price and Clothier’s credit that they imbue such dynamism into Jan and Adam – Clothier’s firm pecs announcing a rampant sexuality that he makes no excuses for and Price is just extraordinary as a capricious sort whose switches feel filled with genuine danger as she ricochets from emotion to emotion and one is left wondering what possible future could there be for them. But as they explore the different kinds of love (though not quite all fifty…) and increasingly bring their son back into the picture of their fractured relationship, we begin to see how compromise is just as important a part of their relationship, any relationship, as anything else. Not that this doesn’t come at a price, not at all – if you’re sitting on the left hand side as you face the stage, check out Price’s expression in the final moments – and suddenly your heart breaks as Weller finally finds a note of emotional realism that rings so horribly and affectingly true.

Perchance not the strongest piece of writing, but undoubtedly one of the most compellingly acted productions in London at the moment. Beware for flying crockery though. And spot the late appearance of the theatrical meme of the year – eggs are just everywhere!

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £1.50
Booking until 20th July

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