Self-evidently devised by the performers themselves, and ably directed by John Wright, The Summer House centres around a stag night in Iceland that goes horribly awry, with some bizarre intermissions when the cast of three play Vikings and some of their gods. Providing an insightful and truthful foray into male habits, psyche and insecurities, this play exploits every moment for its comedy, whilst its comments on masculinity and heritage are made interesting by a refreshing use of special effects and a playful approach to realism.
The play does not flinch from revealing that, however chilled out and bantersome the three men may be whilst things are rosy, immaturity will rear its ugly head when the edifice of fun starts to collapse. With a male camaraderie that is at its most overt (and successful) when safe from the prying and judging eyes of others, it is astonishingly credible how speedily panic or recklessness can take over this male bravado at the first hint of a problem. Setting this at a stag do, when the men are mentally and physically on the cusp of both embracing and escaping the irresponsibility of youth, is a brilliant decision. The script and performers carefully oscillate between the two perspectives: stricken faces at the prospect of intruding an unknown person’s home contrasts with the wanton loss of restraint as they later wreck it; Will’s sweetly helpless reversion to his hefty bum bag in times of trouble is complemented by its use to enhance his exuberant hip thrusts; whilst Matthew’s asides to best man Will (remember the digital cameras on the wedding tables) expose the men’s inability to totally escape from their real-life cares into fantasy fun.
A play from, for and about young people, there is much that I can relate to. On reading the programme afterwards, I discover that I have inadvertently become on first name terms with both actors and characters. That the cast of The Summer House decided not to distinguish between their real and character names seems fitting: the thoroughness and ease with which these very credible people are drawn and executed suggests that the characters we see onstage are extensions of the actors’ real personalities. Incisively observational from the start, the play opens with a car scene: with the third head enthusiastically crammed between the two in the front seats, driver Neil gormlessly and half-heartedly bops along to music as he drives, the image made complete by his mouth-half-open murmurings. Throughout the rest of the performance, the cast pays similarly meticulous attention to unconscious mannerisms, affording us a sneaky peak into how we interact, as seen from the outside. The characters (especially worrier Will) are eminently likeable, and their comedic abilities shine through with some real gems as the production good-naturedly pokes fun at them.
The play’s attitude to realism is perverse and fantastically effective: taking great lengths to create naturalistic effects (e.g. with steam and water sounds), conspicuous absences (the Jacuzzi itself), and the fact we can see both the smoke machine and bucket of water that are being splashed around at every entrance and exit, makes the carefully considered rituals of naturalism wonderfully noticeable. Deftly incorporating props into the action enables us to see the house from afar, believe they are sitting in a Jacuzzi, and move from outside to inside worlds with only the shooshing of an imaginary door, to name but a few effects. The link between the main scenes of naturalism and those of the Vikings and gods is never presented as being anything more than tenuous, yet the playful imaginativeness and fantastic comedy of these intermissions enables them to add effective complexity, intrigue and entertainment. Michael Vale’s superb design (the earthquake effect makes for a particularly impressive conclusion) is in perfect harmony with Wright’s exciting directorial vision, whilst the quality acting from all three performers makes for a brilliantly unusual evening out – though one which is almost definitely focused towards the enjoyment of younger audience.
The Summer House is playing at the Gate Theatre until 24 March. For more information and tickets see the Gate Theatre’s website.