Luke Harris, Stewart Dunseith, Matthew Blake, Christopher Rorke, Richard Anthony Mason, Jon R Harrison, Jamie Hanson
Dangerous Liaisons is always a risky proposition. Get it right, and you can make cinematic or stage history – think Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan on stage, or John Malkovich and Glenn Close on screen. Get it wrong, and not even Colin Firth (who played the eponymous role in Valmont, ‘the film that wasn’t Dangerous Liaisons’) can save you.
An attempt to revive the play in London with an ill-cast Jared Harris crashed and burned only a few years ago, so it takes a brave soul to attempt another staging. Of course, the resident company at Above the Stag is the group that brought you Silence!, the musical based on The Silence of the Lambs, so I’m guessing they are pretty fearless and this is one risk that has paid off.
Dangerous cleverly removes much of the risk of comparison by updating the action, Cruel Intentions style, as well as adding a new slant by making all of the protagonists male. Set in 21st Century Brighton and London, it is the tale of scheming Alexander Valmont and his friend/rival Marcus, and the innocents entangled in their machinations. It’s a simple enough twist but it works surprisingly well. Slickly directed by Tim McArthur, it may favour laughs over emotional depth but Tom Smiths play is sly, smart and funny, retaining much of the spirit of the original but adding a modern gloss.
As Alexander Valmont, Matthew Blake occasionally – and disturbingly – seems to be channelling David Walliams, but he has charm and swagger to spare, making it convincing that he’d manage to cut a swathe of sexual havoc through the London/Brighton scene. Luke Harris makes Marcus deliciously scheming, while Stewart Dunseiths Rosemonde is entertainingly camp and acid-tongued.
As the young lovers caught in Marcus and Alexanders schemes, Jon R Harrison as gym instructor Jason and Jamie Hannon as his music teacher are as enthusiastic as puppy dogs, their clear lack of guile making them easy marks. Richard Anthony Mason is also great as Landon, Alexander’s abandoned accomplice who seeks his own revenge. The one false note is Christopher Rorke as Trevor the trainee priest. In some ways it’s a thankless role, played for feeling in a show where everyone else gets the laughs, but his odd and unplaceable accent and lack of emotional weight mean you care less about the consequences of Valmont’s deception than you should.
The update is smartly done. Setting the action in the slightly incestuous ‘London/Brighton moneyed media types’ gay scene gives it a refreshing and sexy slant, while maintaining the original air of spoiled privilege (Alexander, having inherited money from an ex-lover, doesn’t work, and Marcus spends much of his time trying to wrangle his way into the will of Rosemonde, who came into money the same way.) There are some nice touches – the epistolary novel translates surprisingly well in a world of text and email, and Valmont’s unmasking, when it comes, is suitably public via the internet. This modernity is well-served by Fi Russells simple but stylish set, where nearly all of the action takes place around a bed.
But setting the play in an all-male world does strip away some layers of the original. Merteuil was such a compelling character because she was a self-created monster; living in a world where women were married off young, kept uneducated and expected to behave – at least in public – she used her fierce intellect to subvert society’s sexual hypocrisies to her own ends, and you couldn’t help but admire her for doing so. Marcus, an out gay man in a sexually permissive environment, lacks this motivation or excuse. His initial revenge scheme may originate from being cheated on, but there’s no real sense of why he wants to bring down Valmont, so he just seems a bit of a bastard, and less interesting because of it.
This isn’t a play for everyone. The Daily Mail won’t like it, for a start. With sex and nudity ahoy, and much of the cast spending their time wandering around in tight, teeny pants, it’s not for an easily shocked crowd. It certainly isn’t set to be a classic, but like Valmont himself, it may not be a wise long-term proposition but it’s good for a night of slightly filthy fun.