“Two men just watching a bit of Cruise, nothing wrong with that…”
The most amusing part of James Perkins’ design for Matt Hartley’s Microcosm may be accidental or it could well be a nod to the sweltering heat that often builds up in the attic room of the Soho Theatre Upstairs. In the midst of moving flats on a hot summer’s day, one of the characters sets up a desktop fan, points it out towards the audience and switches it on – it may only offer comfort for a small group but in lieu of effective air-con, it is well played.
The flat belongs to Alex, recently purchased with an inheritance from a grandmother and long-term girlfriend Clare is moving in too. It may only be a conversion but it marks a major step for him in becoming lord of his own manor but he soon comes to realise that along with property comes neighbours. Some are benign, if overbearingly creepy, as in the relentless attentions of married Philip from next door but others are more ominous, like the small gang hanging out down the road – the show opens with the chirpy tones of ‘On The Street Where You Live’ which soon gains a double meaning.
Hartley’s play navigates the emotional contours of Alex’s journey well, the heady excitement of home-owning slowly curdling as major dramas like using the wrong bins come to light. But his main thesis is how neighbourly concern can turn stalkerish – the initial main plot thrust of John Lightbody’s excellently gauche Philip developing a huge mancrush on Philip McGinley’s first-rate Alex, is neatly counterpointed by Alex’s growing obsession with fighting back against the youths who have started to victimise the newcomers.
The varying extent to which these fixations are damaging is interestingly drawn – Clare (the highly charismatic Jenny Rainsford) is adamant that Alex is just poking the hornet’s nest by not leaving the whole thing well alone. And as his paranoia increases, not helped by the tacit acknowledgement from the police that there’s little he can really do with a nice turn from a kindly Christopher Brandon, the question of exactly what point we should, or even could intervene when one feels threatened becomes pressingly pertinent although Philip’s UKIP-baiting suggestions for what to do with the great unwashed is laughed off a little too easily.
It is a curious play, albeit one with little real dramatic surprise in it and Derek Bond’s production is well-conceived for the most part, the pedestrian scene changes being the only real disappointment. The corrugated plastic walls of Perkins’ design and Sally Ferguson’s lighting cleverly distort our view of exactly what is really happening outside, leaving us at the mercy of our possibly unreliable protagonist but there’s not quite enough reasoned debate to really engage us in a way that isn’t sadly predictable.