8 April 2022
SCANDALTOWN (Lyric Hammersmith Theatre) Review

Mike Bartlett is the man of the hour with 3 plays running: Cock (which I opted to give a miss to due to lack of interest in the subject matter and the cast), The 47th (which I had some issue with but liked on balance), and now Scandaltown. From what brief summary of the play available beforehand, I thought there was a good chance I might not like it if it was full of references to social media and hipster culture. Surprisingly, other than cheeky surnames, that aspect of it wasn’t too bad (and I did giggle out loud when an older character told a younger one to go play with his TickTocks).

The play itself is a weird mash-up of Jane Austen-ish rhythm/vernacular and a farce. I wasn’t a fan, personally, but can see how others might like it. Somehow it felt like a shtick to get a few extra laughs in from the juxtaposition of the 19th century language applied to drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll. Next problem for me was the play not coming across as satirical. Sure, it was parody, mocking, sarcasm, etc., but it somehow didn’t seem to add up to clever satire I wanted it to be. But what really left me disappointed was the enormous divide in laughter. One character says something about spending the morning in bed with a bottle of vodka: half the audience is in stitches; another character says he’s going to send his kids to a boarding school: half the audience are hysterical whilst the other half is looking around unsure of what they’re missing… Here’s the thing: this play is only funny if you’re English through and through (or, perhaps, British in a pinch). If you fare from anywhere else in the world, even if you’ve lived here for 5 years or 20, it’s not funny. Sure, it’s cute and clever, but it’s not “haha” funny.

Putting on this production at the same time as The 47th is an interesting choice. Both have the oldie-worldie language, both lean heavily on understanding cultural references for a specific country… Rachael Stirling was very good here as one of the main characters (and it was her delivery of her lines that I laughed at the most), but she can’t lift this show the same way Carvel can in The 47th…

The script is fairly formulaic in a lot of ways, doubly so given the farce framework: there is an obligatory gag where a person is being asked the same question repeatedly throughout the play, but gets interrupted any time they try to answer, an obligatory inside joke (where everyone on stage can see something we can’t), and an obligatory moral lesson, which here had to do with being able to choose your own path in life (and, for me, was the best bit of writing/delivery in the whole play). But what really put me out was the Covid bit. One of the things I actually liked about the play was its “modern times of no particular year” dimension. It was all going swimmingly until, at the very end, one of character tears into a Matt Hancock caricature character with a tirade about how he’ll never forgive him for the handling of Covid. Did we really need to spell it out?

For this particular performance, if the cast members were mic’d (couldn’t see the wires/tape), the sound wasn’t adjusted properly, resulting in a lot of quiet mumbling. If they weren’t mic’d, then no one other than Stirling can project enough to fill a large auditorium.

Rachel O’Riordan’s direction had some lovely creative moments (though I did think that the characters of the aunt and the wife, both played by Emma Cunniffe, could’ve done with a lot more separation between them). Cecilia Appiah’s Phoebe, who’s there to move the plot along, felt a little fake and didn’t do it for me.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £5 if you’re English, £0 if you’re young and aren’t, -£5 if you’re older and aren’t.

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