Review: Sweet Nothings, Young Vic

“Stop moping, stop brooding…”

Sweet Nothings is David Harrower’s take on Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei (Tom Stoppard previously created a version called Dalliance in 1986) and is described as a sex tragedy on the Young Vic’s website. Well, there’s no sex but plenty of tragedy, though perhaps not in the way they intended.

Rather predictably, there’s pandemonium with the seating arrangements. They’re still unreserved as usual with the Young Vic, but it is set up in a horseshoe with benches that are reminiscent of a lecture theatre, but they’re extremely narrow so it is hard to pass people once they’ve sat down. And human nature being what it is, means people always fill these rows from the aisle inwards, meaning that it is a very arduous task to get everyone seated and there’s much huffing and puffing as people are asked to move along to allow everyone in the theatre. I know it is a thankless job, but the ushers need to much firmer with people from the outset, otherwise every evening will suffer a delayed start and much grumpiness.

As far as I could tell the story was about Fritz: set in turn of the century Vienna, having had an affair with a married woman, he has a party at which he begins a new flirtation as a distraction with Christine, a lower-class girl desperate for love who think she has hit the jackpot. Their friends Theodore and Mizi are also at the party and are then witness to events that unfold once the cuckolded husband arrives at the party with the threat of a duel hanging over Fritz. There’s some business with Christine’s father, but that had little to do with anything.

It opened with worrying overtones of the painful Pains of Youth, (one can see the stage direction ‘act louche’ in everyone’s behaviour at the beginning) and I was preparing myself for watching yet another group of disaffected Viennese rich kids angsting about, this time with four young’uns quaffing wine, having larks and quibbling about the human condition. But the first half is somewhat saved by the vibrant performances from Natalie Dormer as Mizi and Jack Laskey as Theodore, generally being by far the more interesting pair on stage. They both crackle with life and a wonderful energy which almost makes up for the fact that very little actually happens. Laskey also has a disconcerting likeness to David Tennant and also, as was pointed out to me in the interval, Daniel Radcliffe, both at the same time: to the point where if you blink whilst looking at him, he changes betwixt the two!

Naturally, the second half then focuses on the relationship between the other two, despite them being far duller! Kate Burdette does ok with a fairly winsome, washed-out role (are all Christines so dull?!), but in his stage debut as Fritz, I rather fear Tom Hughes has overstretched himself here. In the face of more charismatic actors, it is hard to see why anyone would go for him rather than Theodore, he doesn’t really convince as a lothario, and it is a brave actor who takes on a solo crying scene with little experience… There’s the briefest of cameos from Andrew Wincott who I’m pretty sure is gay Adam from the Archers and a fun turn from Hayley Carmichael who invests so much in delivering the word ‘trollop’ brilliantly, she deserves a raise!

There is a classic case of trying way, way too hard with Karl-Ernst Hermann’s set design here though that does put a real dampener on the evening. Set on a raised disc, the stage fitfully revolves throughout the show, sometimes imperceptibly slowly, sometimes judderingly fast, and sometimes in the opposite direction. It’s really quite distracting as it isn’t constant and I’m not sure if it was a running joke as part of the show, but it kept stopping with a window directly over where the actors entered the stage, so they had to duck under it in order to get on, most odd. And the space around the disc was used in a perplexing variety of ways so that I was most confused as to what the relationship between the two spaces was.

To make matters worse, there is a 25 minute interval as the stage crew roll up carpets, ship off the grand piano, and redress the set for the second half, all to create a room which was bright and white rather than luxuriously decadent, but there’s so little onstage really and the effect isn’t so great that it is just ridiculous to have such a long interval: four people next to me evidently had had enough.

Hermann is also responsible for the lighting design which also carried idiosyncratic touches. At one point in the second half, the house lights came up at the end of a scene, leaving me relieved for a mercifully short second act: however it wasn’t over, just another of the oddly disconcerting lighting manoeuvres. And perhaps this was the intention, this creation of a more dreamlike state, but it was not one that sat well with me, especially as events were still happening as per usual onstage. So all in all, an odd little piece, with some teething problems which could be sorted by opening night (this was the second preview) to make the experience smoother, but it still wouldn’t change the fact that I found this quite a dull play.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with a 25 minute interval)
Playtext cost: £3
Note: watch out for flying grapes

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