Review: Belleville, Donmar Warehouse

Amy Herzog’s Belleville, at the Donmar Warehouse this winter, grasps at a few things: the experiences of ‘expats’ vs. ‘immigrants’ in foreign countries, the romanticisation of the city of Paris, a horrible relationship, as well as something about our millennial generation. Altogether, however, it doesn’t all add up to a performance which you take joy in watching. Herzog’s writing is funny and often incisive, the cast is very competent, and the set by Tom Scutt is a perfectly realistic vision of a comfortable apartment, but Belleville somehow didn’t push itself far enough to truly touch me.

Imogen Poots and James Norton play a pretty miserable American couple in Paris, and they couldn’t be characters who are anything other than white: she assures their Senegalese landlord (Malachi Kirby) that she loves the ‘diversity’ of the neighbourhood, among other things, and their pet name for each other is ‘homie’. Poots, in particular, turns in an impressively strong and vulnerable performance as Abby; pointed, tense and frantic. The two are endlessly self-analysing and self-medicating, which rang true with myself, but I couldn’t say with authority whether that’s a real mark of our generation, something we’re told must be so or a kind of narcissism we all like to see ourselves as having.

Both characters are shown to be wrecks, who hurt each other and themselves repeatedly, but it would be a mistake to decide them equally as harmful as each other; both are cruel, but only one of them goes beyond dishonesty with the other into gaslighting. This is a violent play, but it doesn’t need to be, as it’s nasty enough anyway. Maybe if we had slightly longer with the couple it would affect us more. Michael Longhurst’s direction is not especially inspired with very loud, unpleasant electronic music between scenes, and because of the very nature of the play and the anticipated English-speaking audience, Kirby and Faith Alabi are necessarily sidelined in their landlord roles, which is a shame, because both are beautifully capable actors. We have long scenes of Norton and Poots alone, as they’re the subject of the play, of course, but as Alabi and Kirby’s characters speak French together we are given much less of them, though the coda knows we are informed by their manner with each other (and perhaps vague memories of GCSE French).

Again, it’s a shame: the play is focused on Poots and Norton, and though the other two are as interesting and well-sketched as they can be, they are only allowed to be so important, and no further. Everything Belleville is informed by which I mentioned at the start of this review feed into each other and exacerbate the situation, but I do have the feeling that if Herzog had doubled down on one of the themes more than the others, we would have a play which has a more concentrated point to it, and subsequently hits harder.

Belleville is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until the 3 February 2018