Parlour Song @ Almeida Theatre, London

cast list
Amanda Drew, Andrew Lincoln, Toby Jones

directed by
Ian Rickson
Jez Butterworth’s debut play Mojo, an in yer face thriller about gangsters in 1950s Soho, was a big hit in 1995, winning the Olivier Award for Best Comedy, and was later filmed.

His two subsequent plays made less of an impact but his new work Parlour Song, premiered in New York last year, is a sharply written comedy-drama full of poignant humour.

Parlour Song begins like an Ayckbourn play but later turns into something more resembling Pinter.

Set on an anonymous suburban housing estate, it is narrated by car-wash small businessman Dale, next-door neighbour and best mate of Ned, a boring demolition expert whose own life is imploding.
Not only has Ned’s 11-year-old marriage to Joy stagnated but it seems that someone is stealing assorted stuff from his house and garden.

If Ned seems to be cracking up mentally, the ironically named Joy is also at the end of her tether in a relationship where the passion petered out long ago. While her husband is away on his latest demolition trip, she starts an affair with Dale, which brings excitement but also danger as Ned suspects she is unfaithful. Meantime, who the hell has nicked his lawnmower out of the shed?

Mid-life crisis and adultery in a lower-middle-class setting is by no means a new subject, of course, but Butterworth brings great wit and insight into this well-worn theme. He has a superb awareness of the cul-de-sac lives behind net curtains and a wonderful ear for the subtext beyond the clich.

The tone at the start is akin to a sit-com, with the two men watching videos of Ned blowing up inner-city buildings. There are very funny scenes with the fitness fanatic Dale training the out-of-condition Ned, who approaches weight-lifting with the over-the-top aggression of a martial arts fanatic. And when Joy enters the bedroom while Ned is listening on headphones to Dale’s oral sex advice manual and he pretends to be playing air guitar with Clapton, the audience collapses with laughter.

But the mood darkens as the real pain and hopelessness of the protagonists’ lives become apparent. A sense of foreboding and violence mount up as the tensions in the relationships become more strained. A slightly surreal, nightmarish quality takes over, with the writing becoming more elliptical, so that the ending is highly ambivalent.

Directed with sensitivity by Ian Rickson (like all Butterworth’s previous plays) and designed by Jeremy Herbert, making good use of a revolve to show what goes on in different parts of the house, the play runs without an interval for 90 minutes.

The excellent cast work well together. As Ned, Toby Jones’s clowning is counterpointed by the real pathos of a man who is losing his mental balance. Andrew Lincoln is very amusing as the none-too-bright Dale but also shows the callous shallowness of someone who only casually mentions that he has a family himself. Amanda Drew strongly conveys both a frustrated sensuality and an intense desire to escape her homogenized home.

As such a highly entertaining show, Parlour Song will surely transfer from the Almeida to the West End. In addition, Butterworth’s next play Jerusalem premieres at the Royal Court in July let’s hope it’s as good as this one.

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