As hinted at by the title, the theme of Joe Penhall’s play is unspectacular, as familiar as its triangular set up. Stressed young doctors Neal and Rachel are struggling to shield the flickering spark of their strained relationship when Neal’s old friend Richie, a self-destructive puppet master, arrives for an indefinite stay and slowly crowbars his way between them. There is little here that surprises.
It may be unspectacular, but Cambridge University company Wield the Matter execute it with slick precision. Tension infuses the air from the early moments, rising through Neal and Richie’s forced banter and not dispersing until the final moments. It is difficult to fault the performances from Will Attenborough as pedantic, well-meaning worrier Neal and Charlotte Hamblin as an increasingly restless Rachel, but it is Ban Kavanagh’s Richie who rightly straddles centre stage, a poisonous yet damaged figure with a slimily sinister smile.
While the subject matter ensures that Penhall’s play will be slow to age, there is something gently intriguing about the decision to present it now, fifteen years after its first production. Although primarily concerned with relationships and not firmly rooted to a particular time, there are faint but prescient shadows in Penhall’s writing of the disillusionment to follow. By tethering this production to the present with small but deft touches, such as Rachel’s perusal of Fifty Shades of Grey and the dissatisfaction it hints at in her pairing with Neal, director Max Upton lends a contemporary weight to Rachel’s cry of “what’s the point?”
Read in the context of today, the ennui that is almost as damaging to the central relationship as Richie’s sly manipulations is curiously resonant with a whole pocket of young people growing up to find life void of all its early promises. Neal and Rachel become symbols of the “grass is always greener” generation, who are swiftly discovering that the lawn is increasingly parched.
*** – 3/5 stars
Love and Understanding plays at C Venues until 27 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. More information can be found here.