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by on 30 May 2018

Overseasoned to Taste


by Torben Betts

The Original Theatre Company, Ghost Light Theatre and Eilene Davidson; Richmond Theatre until 2nd June, then at the Park Theatre, Finsbury until 7th July

A review by Matthew Grierson

Watching Monogamy, it’s hard not to be reminded of Philip Larkin’s oft-quoted line about what one’s parents do to one, given the frequency with which the characters lament their upbringings. Writer Torben Betts will let you think you’ve got the measure of a character only to refer it upwards, and it’s hard to tell whether this is done in all earnest, and thus a pat way of telling us we all have our difficulties, or is itself being sent up, such is the dependence of his dramatis personae on it.

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Part of the problem in deciding how to take it is that parent–child relations are only one of a spice rack’s worth of ingredients that Betts throws into this show about TV chef Caroline Mortimer. He’s intellectually ravenous: Sexuality! Mental health! Syria! Climate change! Senility! Property! Afghanistan! Alcoholism! There’s not a middle-class anxiety that doesn’t get thrown into the mix. Given that the show is called Monogamy, I found myself longing for it to find a nice idea and settle down together.

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Another respect in which the play evokes Larkin’s poem is the soppy-stern quality of the characters in their cups. Caroline’s son Leo storms out when she makes a homophobic remark, only to be dragged back in with her mollification and assurance of her undivided attention. Recovering from his apoplectic reaction to his son’s sexuality, her husband Mike too splutters towards a declaration of love that he never quite manages. So much of the play depends on characters having conversations of this kind that don’t coincide with one another, an Ayckbournian accomplishment on the part of the script, and even moreso of the actors who keep the rhythm zipping along.

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In fact, there isn’t a foot put wrong among the cast, which is odd considering how all but one of the characters are getting increasingly intoxicated. In the central role of celebrity cook Caroline, Janie Dee peels away all the layers of her character as the action progresses, from her bright screen persona in the camera rehearsal with which the play opens, through the breezy middle-class mother, nervous wife and desperate lover, finally kneeling before us covered in blood – admittedly not her own – wielding a kitchen knife. Dee’s every gesture communicates something about the character, from the dismissive flick of her hair to the definite placement of her wineglass on the table when she declares herself to be “giving up”; there’s also a telling sequence when her PA, Amanda is opening up about her mother’s death, and Caroline can only acknowledge her when the younger woman asks for a top-up on her own drink.

Monogamy 8It’s with the return of her husband Mike that Caroline shifts from being the object of wry satire to a more sympathetic figure, for at least at first sight Mr Mortimer is the model of everything we can despise – enthusiastic golfer, banker and self-pitying drunk. Patrick Ryecart’s performance is every bit as engaging as Mike is repellent, though; and he relishes a part that sees him arrive onstage as pink as his polo shirt, and with an artfully applied sweat patch across his back he delivers a rhapsody in green about his first hole in one. But even he is afforded some depth as we come to know him, struggling to reconcile himself to his advancing years, troubled childhood and son’s lifestyle. His blustering incomprehension at Caroline’s final monologue is also shared by the audience, thought in this respect Betts again dodges serious consideration of any of his themes.

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While both Caroline and Mike are broadly speaking recognisable types, albeit well-inhabited ones, the stand-out character in the piece is Genevieve Gaunt’s Amanda, who sweeps in and out of the kitchen set with nonchalance, or “non-SHALL-onz” as she insists it is pronounced, to keep Caroline abreast of various crises from the imminent visit of potential housebuyer Mrs Minto to a threatened spread of pap-snapped photos in the Mail on Sunday. Amanda is likewise layered, switching from her Estuary accent into an articulate and rococo range of registers and impersonations to create a veneer of professional bonhomie over her grief for the loss of her mother to MS, all of which takes her into a memorable meltdown in the second act.

Monogamy 4Compared with Amanda’s life experience, Caroline and Mike’s son Leo is perhaps of necessity less well rounded, fresh out of Cambridge with strong opinions and feelings; but Jack Archer’s characterisation nevertheless makes him a focus of our concern in the midst of his parents’ preoccupation with maintaining their lifestyles. Drawn, too, into the vortex around the Mortimers’ kitchen sink is carpenter Graeme (Jack Sandle), at first a point of identification amid the bourgeois chaos, but later revealed to be harbouring feelings for Caroline that mean he squanders our sympathy with the appearance of Charlie Brooks as his wife Sally. Brooks herself gives a solid, engaging performance as a character doubly misunderstood: first by Mike and Leo, who imagine she is the promised Mrs Minto; but also, it seems by Betts himself, as her affecting battle with depression becomes a lazy excuse for attempted murder.



Such is the crowdedness of ideas, which begin to dominate the play like Ionesco’s chairs or rhinoceroses, it does seem to demand a dramatic resolution that it can’t provide, despite delivering on the foreshadowed death of one of the characters. If Monogamy ends up being “about” anything, it is not its titular concept as much as it is forgiveness, more often in the characters’ inability to offer or receive it. As such, making Caroline with her unlikely Christianity central to the play has a certain logic, because she becomes de facto confessor to the other characters. But despite her faith, she seems unwilling to take on this role, and the end of the play sees her deliver a monologue with the cadences of the Lord’s Prayer holding a kitchen knife in bloody hands à la Lady Macbeth, all the time relishing the silence of the other characters behind her.

Thus ends an entertaining evening’s viewing that, once digested, proves to have been overflavoured and less substantial than we thought. Inasmuch, Monogamy itself resembles TV cuisine.

Matthew Grierson
May 2018

Photography by Simon Annand

From → Drama, Reviews

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