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by on 21 February 2018


The Tales We Tell Ourselves

Rumours (the British Version)

by Neil Simon

Putney Theatre Company, at Putney Arts Theatre, until 24th February

Review by Matthew Grierson

It should be fairly easy to choose a gift for a couple’s anniversary – it’s tin for tenth, I understand, and Charlie and Viv are celebrating a decade of matrimony. Nevertheless, Leonard and Claire bring a crystal vase, and there’s another one apparently on its way from Harry and Joan in Venezuela. At least that’s something, I suppose: all that the other three couples bring to the party are their own problems. Oh, and the rumours that give this play its title. For, in the continuing absence of the hosts, their well-to-do but self-absorbed guests spin their own tales about what’s really going on.

Rumors PAT1

The narrative builds as each couple in turn have the run of the lounge, airing their grievances or speculating what has become of their hosts, but matters are brushed swiftly under the metaphorical carpet when another couple appears at the front door or on the landing of the impressive, expansive set. This balances the production between paired and ensemble performances, but also gives it something of a stop–start rhythm. So while the first half is certainly funny, the frenzy of activity that concludes it feels a little contrived, there having been more emphasis on individuals’ and couples’ stories rather than the ensemble. At two junctures, all present even admit what they know to the others – midway through the first act and during the interval – so there’s a chance that the comedic tension could be squandered. But Neil Simon is telling a story about other people telling stories, and he has a storyteller’s instinct for drawing particular tales to a close before they become untenable. With the air cleared at the beginning of the second act, the dynamic between the cast proves that the pressure doesn’t always need to be on for them to perform, and the plot is vamped effectively until Ernest reminds us that Charlie is still upstairs. By this stage, I was enjoying myself so much that I’d forgotten.

Rumours 2

Only occasionally is credulity stretched more than Leonard’s neck (he arrives with whiplash from a prang in his new car). For instance, it’s hard to believe that Charlie and Viv have only been married 10 years, when to gauge by the age of most of their friends it could have been 20 or more – a simple tweak to the script would have spared the cast any embarrassment, or the need to refer to babysitters. And, second, though Simon’s script is surprisingly at home in a British English idiom, it seems more awkward when it tries to drop in specific UK references. Does the Chancellor even have a “Deputy Minister of Finance”, let alone an assistant one?

In other respects, however, these references give the play further grounding in its late 80s origins. Mrs T is namechecked as though an acquaintance, and there is an evident obsession, demonstrated by Leonard in particular, about makes of car from BMWs to Jags. This all makes sense of the characters’ – well, the male characters’ – concern to protect their reputations and ambitions, even at the expense of good sense. The awkward scenarios they foist on their wives make you wonder why the women ever married them, though Penny Weatherall and Josie Murphy, as Chris and Claire respectively, give such good value that you cannot help but enjoy their performances. Meanwhile, Jim Dixon as aspirant Tory candidate Glenn Cooper could be entirely loathable, but the wince that he offers in the second act when he thinks he’s given the game away – among a repertoire of similar expressions described by his scornful wife Cassie (Beth Pedersen) – almost makes you sympathise with him. Almost.

Only therapist Ernest and his wife Cookie, both living up to their names, eschew this venality. This is thanks largely to the performances of Jason Thomas and Cait Hart Dyke: the former comes across more likeably than the script would seem to demand, while the latter gets to enjoy several nice bits of business, her bad back meaning she must be hoisted bodily into a chair by the men at one point, and she then later makes her way crabwise across to the floor to the kitchen.

The final guests at this nightmare party are the police, in the person of Vaughan Evans, entertainingly inhabiting the stereotype of the sardonic PC, and Zoë Thomas-Webb as WPC Casey. Their presence prompts a scramble among the rest of the guests to spin a convincing yarn about the fate of Charlie and Viv, but the doubtful coppers want a statement from the homeowner.

Thankfully, Leonard has been dropping hints throughout that he’s the man for the part of Charlie Brooks, this play’s own Godot. Highly strung Scotsman Len has already made digs at another absentee, Dr Dudley – an unfortunate medico who is repeatedly called out of his hard-won seat for Miss Saigon – by complaining “I should have been a doctor. I could have been to the theatre and made a fortune.” (Readers, it’s not so – yours truly has a PhD and never gets so much as his bus fare.) It’s not long before Len is mashing up Polonius and the Prince in his dialogue, and thus inevitably he draws the short straw and ends up having to impersonate the missing host.

The improbable closing monologue is a work of wonder, and it’s no surprise that Graham Kellas has to be offstage while the rest of the partygoers are trying and failing to get their own stories straight. Neither is it any surprise that, once he reappears as Leonard in the guise of Charlie and delivers his extemporised disquisition, he not only earns the affections of his wife once more, hitherto waning, but warrants a pre-curtain round of applause from the audience as well. Perhaps most telling of all, Simon’s script teases with the possibility that this last, wildly strung-together narrative might actually be true – in effect, a storyteller congratulating himself on a job well done.

Matthew Grierson
February 2018

Photography courtesy of Putney Theatre Company


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