“How does it seem? Fine? Right, let’s get the sandwiches out.”
Michael Frayn’s star is shining very brightly at the moment in the theatre. The Old Vic’s production of Noises Off has transferred into the West End and the Sheffield Theatres held a three-show retrospective of his work, of which one, Democracy, will be transferring to the Old Vic in the summer. And now the Rose Theatre Kingston has gotten in on the game with a new production of one of his lesser known works Here. Originally written in 1993, it underwhelmed the critics at the Donmar Warehouse, but a reworked version gained popularity on the continent and ever the industrialist, Frayn has tinkered with it again and it is this rewrite that is being premiered here in Kingston-upon-Thames.
Young couple Phil and Cath move into a studio flat but the start of their new shared life together is marked by chronic uncertainty as they tie themselves in knots over every single little decision like where to put the bed, where to put the pot-plant, what to do with the manky old chair gifted to them by the landlady. They pore over the significance of each thing, each question asked of the other, and then challenge the answers in circular discussions full of double-speak and debate. It becomes clear that Frayn is interested in how we construct lives and relationships together, the terms on which we negotiate and the compromises we settle on.
In some ways, Alex Beckett and Zawe Ashton are up against it as the central couple: Frayn has them passive-aggressively bickering for most of the show and frequently sends Beckett’s Phil off into metaphysical wonderings, so it is a marvel that the pair make a convincing hipster pairing and largely manage to overcome the considered artificiality of much of the dialogue to find the warmth and humour at the bottom of their neuroses. And Steadman puts in a typically great performance full of dry humour as busybody landlady Pat who has a knack for popping up at the most inopportune of moments – including one appearance which has to rank as one of the funniest things on stage this year – yet with her stream of stories about how the flat used to be and how her relationships have played out, she offers a grim hint of what the future could hold.
Theatrical bargain hunters may be a little put out that the pit and its cheap seats have been co-opted by Polly Sullivan’s design, but it is a canny decision that finally makes sense of the shape of the Rose’s auditorium and goes a long long way to addressing the disconnect that so often occurs with audiences here. That’s not to say that it is an entirely successful reconfiguration. Spirling’s direction has a curiously static quality about it despite having opened up a wide playing space – one of her favourite character alignments, with the three of them raked diagonally across the stage, had the unfortunate consequence from my seat of the back of one eclipsing the other two, something made worse by its later recurrence and the ease with which it could be avoided.
Here probably ranks as more of a theatrical curiosity than a must-see, Frayn’s constant reworking of the play indicative of his own feelings towards it, but this iteration does make a compelling case to be seen, not least in the powerful performances of its three excellent actors.