London is not a city designed for hot days. There’s not enough ventilation nor air-conditioning. And the mixture of pollution and the wet climate means that the heat always seems to hang heavy in the air. Perhaps the last place you want to end up on a day such as this is a boxy pub theatre with very little ventilation, the echoing cries of punters downstairs cheering the opening night of the Euros.
But spend just a couple of minutes watching Mates, and you forget about any yearning to spend the evening tanning in the park. The show is an hour of uproarious but inoffensive improvised comedy based around the US sitcom Friends, but re-imagined as though it is three twenty-something-year-old Brits living in New York, rather than the six US natives of the original show.
There are two ‘episodes’ per performance of Mates, and each character – Hugh (Hugh Clark), Rachel (Rachel E Thorn) and Alex (Alex Keen) – has their own storyline in each episode, the subject of which is provided by the audience at the start.
Thus it was that the night I attended, we had, in our first episode, “The One with the Dominoes Set”, “The One with the Water Park”, and “The One with the Moustache”. Each character is given a theme, and their storyline revolves around that theme in much the same tenor as the original show. Indeed, the chemistry that made the original series so loved and so fresh for a full decade is equally present between Alex, Rachel and Hugh.
The easy interactions, the knowing glances, the fundamental affection that exists between them is all recognisable from the show – but the improv element adds a touch of absurdity that brings the proceedings out from its slightly stifling 90s social context. Things are a bit more confrontational, a bit more politically aware (with wry references to the unaffordability of Monica’s apartment) and there is a queer subplot that isn’t treated with the same level of stupefaction as when, in the real show, Ross’s ex-wife Carol enters into a relationship with another woman.
The three actors have a masterful handle of comedy and the sheer array of improvised characters that they play to support the plotline, in amongst their main role, allows all three to demonstrate their ability. A particular favourite is the jobsworth water park attendant played by Alex, or a famed WW2 veteran-come-dominoes-legend played by Hugh. But my favorite performer was Rachel, who has a subtlety in the roles that she plays that do not rely so much on channelling sheer boisterous energy to trigger laughter.
Mates is both a homage to Friends and a gentle satire that is ready to pass comment on a show that is, by today’s standards, pretty vanilla. The sheer joy that the performers channel into the show is wonderful to behold, and it will be exciting to see what this finely-tuned company comes up with next.
Mates is playing at the Et Cetera Theatre until 14 June 2021. For more information, see Et Cetera Theatre’s website.