Torben Betts’s Muswell Hill does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a depiction of middle-class, middle-aged lives in a middle England faux-suburb – attracting a similarly middle-class, middle aged audience. It seems slightly off-mark for the Park’s promise of vibrancy and a representative of today’s London, programming their socks off to appeal to everyone: tantalisingly fresh, interesting and with a bloody big heart.
Muswell Hill has heart. A black and white, accessible heart that’s more than a little one-dimensional. We see a disastrous dinner party where each guest is so involved with their own heartbreaks, livelihoods, under-achievements, phones and laptops, that those around them become insignificant. In the utter devotion to the sound of their own voices, they end up as isolated as the shiny white island in the fancy suburban kitchen that their evening is centred around. It is set on the same day as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which is referenced intermittently in the dialogue and constantly in the staging. Appliances rest on rubble and the characters are surrounded by the remnants of disaster.
There is a cleverly effective undercurrent of unsettlement and a forecast for ruin, but this isn’t quite matched by the narrative: the futility of the characters’ issues is magnified by the passing reference to the hundred thousand dead and two million homeless of the Haiti earthquake. It perhaps isn’t focused on enough to add any kind of meat to the narrative, but that’s true of the whole kit and caboodle. There are six characters each giving soliloquised snippets of their own problems, without much in the way of interaction or fleshing out. They are not particularly interlinked in a style that would suit an episodic structure like a soap.
There are some really good performances within it though, especially by Charlotte Pyke and Ralph Aiken. Pyke plays Karen, a periodic vegetarian and sporadic teetotaller who is obsessed by putting on a pedestal the negative events of her past. Pyke has the perfect combination of comedic emotion, which is always a winner. Aiken, who previously played a cockney builder in the Park’s sexually explicit Contact.com only last month, is virtually unrecognisable as Nietzsche-spouting Simon, as he travels the world trying to find some kind of meaning somewhere. He is nerdy, obnoxious and self-conscious in equal measure.
Overall Muswell Hill is entertaining, if emptily so. It kind of reminds me of Christmas day lunch: family that wouldn’t normally spend that much time together, who have eaten too much, had one too many and wound up in fruitless arguments and self indulgence – too easily forgotten and insignificant.
Muswell Hill is playing at the Park Theatre until 14 March. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website. Photo by Boris Mitkov.