Hard Feelings was first performed in 1982, more than meriting its transfer to the Bush Theatre a year later. What makes this so striking is that Doug Lucie’s play still feels so relevant, topical, contemporary, insightful and exciting.
Despite the race riots and rampant social injustice happening just outside their front door, a flat in Brixton proves to be a thoroughly insulated and blinkered environment for a collection of Oxford graduates. They’re more concerned with style than substance, aesthetic rather than essence and the relentless pursuit of fun, which, despite the drink, drugs and frequent costume changes, seem to constantly escape them. Only Tone and Jane appear grounded, with an ability to look beyond seeking another cheque from the Bank of Mum and Dad, and witnessing and experiencing life beyond this manufactured version of the Bloomsbury Set.
Lucie’s writing is sharp and brutal. He displays a knack of knowing when to zip dialogue along (expertly done during the house party scene), and when to pause, allowing his creations to wallow in their self-inflicted filth. Lucie has an almost Chekhovian flair to hold a mirror up to the middle classes, and pull the rug from beneath the façade that money equates to happiness. “The working class don’t have a monopoly on misery”, laments Viv, who in turn, is accused of creating “a middle class barricade” by the broodingly philosophical Tone, who’s determined “not to drown in the waters of the middle ground”, and notes that if God does exist, “He’s never read Marx”. Indeed, testament to Lucie’s script is the fact that I found myself furiously jotting down Tone’s musings throughout the night, to fire off like theological torpedoes next time I find myself in an environment akin to the one created at the Finborough.
Hard Feelings’s six strong cast are all thoroughly complex and defined characters in their own right – there is no weak link. In Tone, Lucie has formed a (justifiably) angry young man of the sort last seen on stage in John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger. Tone is accompanied by the earnest and tenacious Jane, whilst Viv and Annie display a social and cultural ignorance based on their comfortable and isolated upbringings. Housemate Baz struggles to find his place within this set-up, uncomfortable with the blinkered mindset of his peers, yet not confident enough (perhaps due to his much-maligned northern roots) to counter it. And in Rusty, Lucie has unleashed a monster, a grotesquely privileged and aloof individual, carnivalised through dialogue and costume yet still utterly plausible.
The cast are in full sync with the writing. Each of these young performers on stage is totally compelling, revealing the hard-nosed and sharp-elbowed mentality that most definitely makes them Thatcher’s children, yet also allowing the mask to slip occasionally to reveal their true vulnerability. Jesse Fox in particular is perfect as dandified Rusty, and Callum Turner provides a gritty performance as Tone. Honourable mention to the remaining cast as well; Zora Bishop, Nick Blakeley, Margaret Clunie and Isabella Laughland. Remember these names.
Director James Hillier ensures that this production not only says a lot about the stratified system in place within Thatcher’s supposedly ‘classless’ Britain, but also sounds a warning to the continued trend of gentrification of South London. Walk through Brixton today and you will find these characters coexisting with naivety amongst those who still vividly remember the Brixton riots. The Finborough has housed a play that is still so relevant to our times.