Leigh Party Explodes, Genocide Girl Drops Out: U.K. Stage

From left, Natalie Casey as Angela, Andy Nyman as Laurence, and Susannah Harker as Susan, in "Abigail's Party" by Mike Leigh. Lindsay Posner's production has transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore/Menier Chocolate Factory via Bloomberg

Simon, a character in Vivienne Franzmann’s new play “The Witness” at London’s Royal Court Theatre, is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide.

He’s decent, articulate, and oozes dignity from every pore. He’s suffered, he’s forgiving. He’s every white liberal’s dream of an educated young African.

With that CV, is it surprising he’s also a theatrical lead weight?

The play deals with a raddled, heavy-drinking British photojournalist called Joseph (Danny Webb). Twenty years ago, he rescued a baby girl from a heap of massacred bodies in a church in Rwanda.

His photograph of the event has become famous, and haunts his adopted daughter Alex (Pippa Bennett-Warner), who is the subject of the image.

For reasons which slowly become clear, Alex has dropped out of her studies at Cambridge University and is living a rudderless existence at home with her father in London.

Joseph, who has secrets to be revealed too, tries to help her find her place in the world.

Then Simon appears in Act 2, claiming to be Alex’s lost brother and massacre survivor.

There are some good things here. The relationship between clever, independent Alex and her sardonic father is attractively done. They make each other laugh. They squabble in a healthy manner. They’re physically affectionate.

Jealous Tension

A little of that goes a long way, and it makes for a long first act. It’s much more interesting when Simon appears, and jealousies and tensions arise between father and daughter.

Franzmann uses some of the stock devices of melodrama -- guilty secrets, the return of the past, an ambiguous stranger -- to generate some heat. Those sorts of tricks need careful handling if not to appear mechanical or soapy.

When yet another bitty short scene finishes on a climactic cliffhanger and a blackout, without delving into the conflict just raised, it’s clear that the soap-opera trap is one Franzmann hasn’t avoided.

“Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare leave this room,” screams Alex to her father after a juicy revelation of past misdeeds. He leaves.

Webb and Bennett-Warner do a fine job with their parts, and create a psychologically believable father-daughter relationship. They’re well directed by Simon Godwin. David Ajala does his best with the saintly Simon, and designer Lizzie Clachan creates an attractive bourgeois-bohemian living room set. Rating: **.

‘Abigail’s Party’

Mike Leigh’s 1977 bitter comedy of manners “Abigail’s Party” is a much sharper and more subversive piece of work, and gets a terrific production which has transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre.

Beverly, a selfish and domineering hostess, gives a drinks party for her lower-class neighbors Angela and Tony, and invites upper-middle-class Sue as well. During the evening Beverly manipulates her guests, now humiliating them, now playing them off against each other.

The clever part of the play, the aspect which has made the 1977 televised version a film classic, is the manner in which the guests start to turn on each other.

The television version is so well-known that it’s hard not to compare the stage production. Mike Britton’s suburban living-room set, an almost exact replica of the one in the film, doesn’t help in making a separation.

Acting honors go to Andy Nyman (Laurence) and Susannah Harker (Sue), who both tread the line between comic exaggeration and pain with extraordinary precision. Jill Halfpenny is amusingly bitter and loud as the monstrous Beverly, without quite getting to the heart of what makes her tick.

Director Lindsay Posner carefully keeps the tension building until the explosive, funny-horrifying climax. A treat for fans of cruel suburban satire. Rating: *** ½.

“The Witness” is in repertoire at the Royal Court Theatre. http://www.royalcourttheatre.com or +44-20-7565-5050

“Abigail’s Party” is at Wyndham’s Theatre. http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk or +44-844-482-5136

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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