Southwark Fair @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Margaret Tyzack
Rory Kinnear
Michael Legge
Rhashan Stone
Simon Gleeson
Con O’Neill
Madeleine Potter

directed by
Nicholas Hytner

Samuel Adamson’s new metropolitan comedy at the National follows a sextet of characters through one insane day south of the river. With a considerable – but not complete – focus on gay relationships, this is an endearing, enjoyable, if somewhat slight piece of theatre.

Though Adamson’s play is most definitely a comedy, the central premise resembles that of David Harrower’s intense two-hander Blackbird (recently opened at the Albery). Simon, a softly-spoken IT analyst, has agreed to have lunch with the man who gave him his first gay experience when he was 14. The man in question, Patrick, is now an author of limited success but at the time he was Simon’s director during a theatre camp production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and some six years his senior.

Unlike Blackbird this reunion does not lead to recrimination and violence. Instead it quickly dawns on Patrick that he has confused his conquests – he thought he had arranged to reacquaint himself with his lithe Lysander, instead he’s lumbered with Simon’s Puck. This miserable encounter is one of the most excruciatingly amusing episodes in a play packed with first class comic dialogue.

In addition to Simon and Patrick’s intensely awkward lunch, Southwark Fair also follows the fortunes of Aurek, a young Canadian waiter fretting over his impending civil partnership with the deputy mayor of London, and Toni, Patrick’s American wife, who stalks the South Bank in search of her forever straying husband.

Nicholas Hytner’s very agreeable production contains some excellent performances. Rory Kinnear is incredibly warm and likeable as Simon, the kind of man who tidies his flat before the cleaners come round. He’s a sweetheart but never completely passive, always handy with a sharp comeback. And Con O’Neill – who’s performance as Joe Meek rescued Nick Moran’s Telstar from its own conventionality last summer – does wonders as Patrick, a callous but troubled man.

It’s a shame some of the other characters lapse into stereotype. A one-handed, singer-songwriter with frazzled hair and laddered tights, everything about Toni (played by Madeleine Potter) initially shrieks “kooky” in a rather bludgeoning fashion. And the sole defining characteristic of Simon Gleeson’s laidback Angus seems to be ‘Australian’ – lugging around a backpack and a guitar-case he makes a living by selling bird-whistles by the river, whilst occasionally doing a bit of juggling or turning his hand to some of that “standing really still.”

Despite the odd gag about fisting, there’s something very Richard Curtis-y about Southwark Fair (the sweetly low-key final scenes are lacking only the CGI snowflakes). Indeed there’s something rather filmic about the whole enterprise and it’s easy to imagine these scenes unfolding in front of their real South Bank locations instead of Giles Cadle’s overly basic Mondrian-esque backdrop.

Having said that, Adamson’s play says nothing fundamental about the identity of Southwark as a neighbourhood, and if it weren’t for some key scenes playing out in City Hall it could easily have been set in half a dozen other London locales.

As a whole there’s something rather flimsy about the piece – having the action loop back on itself in the second act to fill in episodes from other characters’ viewpoints, though quite clever, doesn’t ultimately add very much – but it does contain a higher count of laugh-out-loud moments than most recent comedies. In the end, the sheer sparkle of the writing makes up for many of the play’s weaknesses and as a result Southwark Fair leaves you in very good spirits.

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