Review: The Empty Quarter, Hampstead Downstairs

“It’s easy to get carried away here, it happens to everyone”

Alexandra Wood’s The Empty Quarter may find itself the victim of slightly unfortunate timing – a play about tough working conditions in the oil-rich Gulf States would lead many, who have seen recent headlines, to thoughts of the horrendous plight of migrant workers in Qatar. That the play is actually about a much higher grade of worker in Dubai, housed in palatial flats and raking in a healthy tax-free income, may initially throw you, but the story it tells of the strictures of life on the Arabian Peninsula has its own compelling drama.

From the outset, it is clear that mid-twenties couple Greg and Holly haven’t quite taken to Dubai like the proverbial duck to water. What seemed attractive in the brochures seems unreal and hollow in the flesh, the comparative social isolation is particularly hard for Holly who isn’t working and an ill-advised jaunt into the desert resulted in something like second-degree burns. But when Greg takes matters into his own hands and quits his job, they discover that the rules are entirely different out here and that they’re in for the long haul whether they like it or not.

Wood’s play hits on a shocking reality about taking on these kinds of contracts and it is enough to give pause to anyone thinking of doing the same. But she also delves into the more universally applicable truths about the challenges of emigration and how it plays out differently in a couple. Gunnar Cauthery’s Greg is constantly on edge, trying to do the right thing yet struggling with missing his life back home, whereas Jodie McNee’s Holly is just struggling, cut adrift and thrust into a world of nothing but exercise classes and shopping. 

The star performance comes from Geraldine Alexander though, as Gemma the wife of Greg’s boss. A resident of Dubai for nearly 25 years, she’s watched countless colleagues come and go on the short contracts that tempt them out in the first place, desperately trying to make friends with their wives in the meantime and not always succeeding. Her brittle, busybody demeanour is a whirlwind of activity, her constant presence a bugbear for Greg and Holly yet Alexander roots her in total honesty, demanding our empathy if not our sympathy for the life she has been party to for so long.

Anna Ledwich directs with a keen sense of pace, although the interval that has been interjected does seem superfluous, and Helen Goddard’s traverse design has the elegant clean lines of the super-rich. David Hounslow completes the cast as Gemma’s husband Patrick, equally bound into the life he has invested so much in even as he sees the approaching financial crisis, and The Empty Quarter continues a strong run for the Hampstead downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes 
Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 26th October

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