Review: God of Carnage, Cambridge Arts Theatre

God of Carnage is the very epitome of a kitchen-sink drama, despite taking place in a living room.

It follows two married couples whose children have been involved in an altercation as the utterly ‘civilised’ adults try to decide who was to blame and how to put it right. Gradually, however, this mature discussion descends into, well, carnage. Their pseudo-sophistication abandoned, they take on the explosive, changeable moods of their 11-year-old children and long-held insecurities and frustrations rise to the surface.

The play seems to suggest that we never really grow up, we cloak our deepest instincts with the trappings of civility and only when those are stripped away do we see how debased and depressed we can be. The menacing chandelier of spears that hangs over the set would suggest that these nuclear families are about to go downhill, fast. 

It may sound like something of a psychodrama and, in many ways, it is, but it’s also utterly hilarious. Unfortunately, the humour is rather absent for much of the first half, which simply portrays a scene of domestic banality, two sets of parents come together to discuss the repercussions of one son knocking the others tooth out with a stick. While punctuated with the odd moment of comedy, the setting felt all too real and normal, and frankly dull, for the comedy to be anything other than pedestrian. Gradually, however, it becomes obvious that it was worth waiting through the depressing familiarity as the couples begin to abandon their niceties. 

At an hour and a half with no interval, all four characters being fairly permanently on stage and an incredibly naturalistic script, you need some powerhouse actors to keep the audience’s attention for so long. Luckily, this version provides them. Elizabeth McGovern and Samantha Spiro bring the ideal amount of ‘feminine sensibility’ to the oft underdeveloped female characters of Veronica and Anette. McGovern’s constant return to the matter at hand, the punishment and/or reconciliation of their children, becomes obsessive with increasing neuroticism as her anger at the indifferent diplomacy of her husband bubbles to the surface. She is the only character who could truly be considered civilised, defending her morals to the last and seeming to actually care about the welfare of her kids. 

The rest of the characters exist on a decaying moral trajectory from the understandable frustrations of Anette to the inability of Michael (Nigel Lindsay) to associate his current situation with his overtly masculine roots. Spiro brings the mousey personality of a wife who has been constantly oppressed, ignored by her husband and expected to take on domestic roles she detests. Her deterioration is perhaps the most satisfying to watch and the only one that felt inevitable. Lindsay, on the other hand, attempts to bring an air of tact to the proceedings but can’t help letting the depravity of Anette’s husband Alan drive him back to the ‘John Wayne-ish virility’ of his youth. 

Alan (Simon Paisley Day) is perhaps the most entertaining character. A morally reprehensible lawyer, more interested in the state of his paycheck than of his children, he struts around the stage – constantly on the phone – with the insufferable male bravado that is so detestable to women and yet so seductive to men. He drives much of the anger of the play but also much of the comedy, reduced to a slumped wreck when his phone is dumped into a vase by a vengeful Anette or restraining Veronica from physically attacking her husband. 

While there is definitely a lot to God of Carnage that make it worth seeing, I must admit that a lot of the thematic elements were lost on me. Being neither middle-aged nor a parent, I thought that my interpretation would be initially limited but actually, this isn’t a play about being either of those things, it’s about what it means to be an uncultured human (which, let’s face it, we all are) in a cultured society.

As an examination of that nature, it fell short. It is neither quite tragic nor quite comic enough to succeed in either genre; there are some interesting explorations and some excellent performances but its falls short of being anything revelatory.

Nevertheless, it showcases the place we all wish we could go to when those we love drive us up the wall, so I would recommend it merely for the hilarity and satisfaction of seeing upper-middle class adults go completely insane.

God of Carnage is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 8 February. For more information and tickets see the Cambridge Arts Theatre website.