Affluent north London couple Mat and Jessica’s kitchen (beautifully designed by Robyn Wilson) is the epitome of middle class comfort. The wine rack is full, the fridge is stocked with hors d’oeuvres, the Le Creuset is bubbling with monkfish stew. The hostess’s new dress – a snip in the sales – is on, and all is ready for a dinner party with friends. It is January 2010 and their domestic scene is set against the backdrop of the earthquake in Haiti. Mat and Jessica mention the disaster but it is just one of their many preoccupations and they are interrupted by more pressing concerns (“…but do I look like I’ve lost any weight?” asks Jessica) and by the eternal distraction of their mobile phones. It is at this moment that Mat chooses to drop his bombshell. He has information about Jessica from, he says, a friend of a friend. She’s been having an affair. As he confronts her, the doorbell rings. Their first guest has arrived.
Muswell Hill was inspired by a real life event – playwright Torben Betts witnessed a young couple in a pub the night after the Haitian quake in 2010. They were engrossed in their mobile phones, trying – and failing – to talk about Haiti’s earthquake. “They didn’t look up once,” he says, “Or make any eye contact, but attempted a fractured conversation [to express] their horror at the loss of life…. Neither could quite engage with the subject…due to their preoccupation with their buttons and their screens. That was the starting point of the play.”
Technology is central to Muswell Hill and Sam Walters’ slick production emphasises it to the utmost. As the audience enters, Mat sits at the kitchen table at his laptop, tapping at the keyboard. The laptop is there for the entire show, distracting almost every character who passes: its screen glows during the blackouts. Mobile phones are everywhere. At points the action halts completely, mid-sentence, as a text message is sent. There are periods of total silence while every character checks their phone. During an emotional conversation between two characters, a third, oblivious, paces up and down, laughing uproariously as she listens to a voicemail. They’re all here but – like the young couple in the pub – none is ever fully present.
Betts says he writes very much with the actor in mind, as befits the former actor he is; he starts with the characters, working on their perspectives and motives before finding his story. “All the characters in this play and all my other naturalistic plays, are based on someone I have known or have come across in the past and then modified with a bit of my own life or with a bit of invention.” If this is the case, I would be wary of having Torben Betts as a close friend – who could relax knowing that one day parts of their deepest character – perhaps the least attractive parts – might be pinned like a moth in a display case, under bright lights and in public, displayed with unerring accuracy and in such detail?
That said, Betts’ characters can be sympathetic as well as repulsive, although they are mostly both in equal measure. For each, I felt moments of complete empathy; and equally, moments where I couldn’t bear their self-absorption or self-righteousness, where witnessing their anger at each other and the world was thoroughly disturbing. Perhaps the most likeable of all is Jessica (Jasmine Hyde); despite being cast as ‘the adulteress’ of the piece, she seems the most self-aware, the most content with her lot – she is happy, she says ‘to be ordinary.’ All the rest long to be special, to be different, to be noticed. Handsome husband Mat (Leon Ockenden), yearning for just one published novel to leave behind as evidence he once existed, lives off her earnings. She pays for the homes, the holidays, everything, while he appears to mainly check his emails and surf the web. When Jessica challenges him on what it is that he wants his novel to say, what his opinion actually is, he is exposed – despite this intense desire to communicate and to leave part of himself behind in the world, he has no idea what he wants to say.
Mat’s university chum Simon (Dan Starkey) has, by contrast, too much to say and no one who will listen. Mid-30and living with his “catatonic mother in Kent”, he is training to be a teacher and is awkward company in the extreme. Politically opinionated, socially uncertain, a master of the non sequitur, Simon is cynical about, well, nearly everything, virulently left wing about everything else and a genuine fury simmers under his surface discontent. He clashes with everyone, oblivious to the discomfort he creates – indeed, I caught one audience member with her face screwed up in embarrassment as Simon steams ahead into a multitude of social faux pas. Jessica’s friend Karen (Katie Hayes) is talkative to the point of motor mouth, self-obsessed and a bad listener. She and Simon get off to a bad start when Simon catches her calling him “a weirdo” behind his back (that pesky reflective laptop screen) but as the wine flows, their relationship improves.
As well as these two, Jessica’s beautiful adoptive sister Annie (Tala Gouveia) and her new, much older fiancé Tony (Timothy Block) are dinner guests – and with them come another example of a couple who don’t communicate well. Tony, newly affianced, is still married – “technically” – to his wife of 35 years. A drama lecturer with a white-haired ponytail, his biggest problem in life, he says, is being “constantly surrounded by totty”. Annie, with a difficult childhood and a history of alcoholism, now dreams of acting and singing, of studying in New York with her surrogate father-husband. But he is nostalgic for the time in his past when he still had a future – and now, fuelled by drink and drugs, he exists surrounded by people who, he says exhaustedly, “all want to be somebody”.
Each scene’s end is marked by a blackout. Some of these even raise applause from the audience for the scene just gone which, along with slicing action neatly, gives an impression that what you’ve just seen is more than just a naturalistic play about a dinner party; that each segment is designed to illustrate a deeper point about modern relationships and human interaction. As everyone we see is distracted by a phone or a TV or by drink and drugs, and as there are several distinct narratives developing – Mat and Jessica’s potential break-up, Karen and Simon’s distaste thawing to interest, how Annie and Toby’s relationship involves Jessica – I felt, as the lights came up, that I’d seen more than I could easily digest.
The final image of the piece is Mat, alone in the kitchen as he was at the beginning, weeping. From his laptop yet another clip of a news bulletin about Haiti plays. As a counterpoint to the smaller scale tragedies played out in front of me, I’m not sure where Haiti is supposed to fit. Is it here to remind us of the bigger picture of life outside this kitchen? Outside well-to-do Muswell Hill? Of the insignificance of our personal sadnesses when weight against natural disasters? Or is it a comment on the intrusive nature of a 24-hour global world of technology that never allows us to focus on ourselves and is an eternal distraction? Exactly how all the issues fit together, I remain unsure; but one thing I do know is that in Muswell Hill there is certainly plenty to think about.
Muswell Hill is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 10 March. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website.