Richard (Liam Bewley) is about to turn the big 4-0 and has decided that this deserves a proper celebration. He’s throwing a birthday party and invites all his colleagues. Diane (EJ Martin), the newest employee is first to arrive with her boyfriend, Nick (Philip Honeywell) who we learn is often the life of the party. The drinks are out and the nibbles keep on coming but the only thing missing is the other party guests. No one else is coming.
Naturally, Dianne and Nick can’t leave Richard alone at his own party on his birthday and settle in for an uncomfortable night with their ever-so-awkward host. Matters take a turn for the worse when Richard’s wife, Valerie (Emily Stride) turns up and brings a lot of history and unpleasantness with her.
The small staging is perfect for making the audience feel just as trapped as Diane and Nick. It’s a big ask to expect audiences to be so involved a play that’s made to make them feel uncomfortable but the dark comic writing of David K. Barnes’ script along with the fantastic acting makes it bearable. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable in a strange way.
There is nothing to distract the audience from these characters so it is important that they come across as real – rather than just characters in a play. Except for one dramatic moment where Nick and Valerie’s past properly catches up with them – which feels more like a scene from EastEnders – these people seem completely real.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Richard. Bewley plays him as so sweet, friendly but incredibly awkward that it automatically makes you feel for him when the other guests are a no show and his wife comes with the intention of ruining his birthday party.
Martin’s Diane is very interested in keeping up appearances but as the night unravels so does her nerve with a lot of help from alcohol. She still manages to impressively keep her composure while drunk although her scorn towards things such as English degrees aren’t hidden in her stupor. While Honeywell as her boyfriend expertly delivers countless sly one liners to begin with; as the party progresses he loses his wit and just seems understandably irritated at having been dragged along.
The last guest to the party, Valerie really spices things up. Stride is sensational as Valerie. It’s impossible to know what she will do next. One moment she is cruel and vindictive and the next moment she’s sad and frustrated with the way her life has turned out. It is pretty incredible to see her bounce from different emotions so quickly and by the end of the play you will feel sorry for her too despite everything else.
It was hard to tell whether the play was quite as funny as it seems or whether having friends and family in the audience was creating more of the party atmosphere than it might do other nights. There are scenes that could be cut and often these take place when two characters exit and you know the real drama is happening off stage. Overall, it isn’t a party you’ll forget quickly and the bittersweet end is actually somewhat satisfying.
Birthday Suit plays the Old Red Lion Theatre until February 4.
Photo: Mathew Foster