Elephants* (Hampstead Theatre, Downstairs)

Posted: December 17, 2014 in Theatre

elephantsChristmas is the time for finding comfort in familiar things, or so Rose Heiney tells us in her new play and there are plenty of familiar things on display here, as we enter a cosy, seasonally decorated living room in affluent middle class suburbia, peopled by a group of pretend-jolly folk who are actually really miserable. Yes, we are in Alan Ayckbourn territory and, for those of us who carefully steer clear of Ayckbourn plays (are there 100 yet?) just to avoid spending an evening in the company of such characters, this is not good news. The hosts are Richard (Richard Lintern) and Sally (Imogen Stubbs) whose son had been killed a year earlier; facing that awkward first Christmas after a bereavement, he mopes around, drinks excessively and spits out nothing but sarcasm, while she fusses nervously, trying to pretend that everything is the same as it always was. The first guests to arrive are Dick (Jonathan Guy Lewis) and Valerie (Helen Atkinson Wood),who resolve not to acknowledge the elephant in the room, but then they have one of their own – a lesbian daughter in Australia who has become pregnant after acquiring donor sperm off the internet. Next comes Lizzy (Antonia Thomas), the dead son’s girlfriend and, finally, Richard and Sally’s daughter, the totally obnoxious Daisy (Bel Powley), fresh from six months in a psychiatric unit. Daisy is the play’s catalyst, determined to blow away all the falsehoods and speak the truth. So is it better to pretend that nothing has changed when in fact everything his changed? Or is openness the best policy? Or do we ever care? Throughout its first half Heiney’s play emulates the creatures in its title and plods. Things look brighter after the interval when the writer introduces a device which promises to bring some life to the party, but this turns out to be no more than a brief diversion up a cul-de-sac, preceding a second half which, in its entirety, goes absolutely nowhere. Neither the characters nor their relationships with each other are properly fleshed out, leaving us with a very simple comedy of gaffes in which the aforementioned sarcasm is plentiful but any higher form of wit is scarce and Tamara Harvey’s leaden production manages to wring out very few laughs. Sadly, the elephant at Hampstead Theatre this Christmas turns out to be a white one.

Performance date: 15 December 2014

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