The title of Martyn Hesford’s new play, The Glass Supper, might lead you to expect a play about religion. Peppered throughout the action are references to God, Jesus, and the practise of Christianity – and yet, despite this attempt to create a through-line theme out of this, these references seem unnecessary and jarring to the action of the piece. Sadly, this is very much the case with most of the play’s aspects: it’s easy to see what it’s trying to get at, but it never quite achieves its goals.
The Glass Supper takes us to the remote countryside home of Colin (Owen Sharpe) and Marcus (Michael Begley), where they have moved to escape London life. Interrupting them are Steven (Michael Feast), his young boyfriend Jamie (Alex Lawther), and his ex-wife Wendy (Michelle Collins). The wine starts flowing and over the course of the play we see events spiral into chaos. Various revelations come to light, and we discover the not-so-secret secrets of the various characters. A great deal of the play is highly amusing: from the offset, quick-witted rapid-fire dialogue means it finds great merit in comedy. Moments of real hilarity come frequently from Lawther, whose portrayal of the boyish, over-sexualised Jamie is pitched excellently.
Worryingly though, the characters too frequently come off as stereotypes. In no way can we complain about finally having more gay characters on stage – representation is so poor that it’s a welcome change. But in some ways the play draws attention to how easy it is to stereotype gay or working class characters. This may explain some of the characters’ distinctly sexist or homophobic views; Hesford shows through these caricatures that these views are not to be applauded. The problem here, though, is that Abbey Wright’s production never quite stands on either side of surreal or realistic. Sometimes the characters are believable, sometimes entirely unnatural; the text moves from parody to sincerity, with neither dominant enough to create a tone for the play as a whole. On the more realistic side, the use of isolated bursts of light, particularly towards the end of the piece, help create moments of moving solidarity – but again, this doesn’t quite fit with the bolder, less realistic moments of the play.
A mention should be made of Signe Beckmann’s set, which does well to illustrate the conflicts between the inside and outside worlds, with its wooden frames creating a clear definition between the two. This works very well with the way the fourth wall is used; the characters are entirely confined to the world of the play – apart from Marcus, who constantly makes direct eye contact with the audience. This stresses the irony of his situation – he is the only one to truly fear the outside, and therefore cannot look away from it – and is very effective. Also impressive is the well-formed relationship between Begley’s Marcus and Sharpe’s Colin, who create in the play’s quieter moments a more powerful impact than any of the shouting that goes on.
But this is yet another issue The Glass Supper has. Too often, yelling is resorted to in an attempt to heighten the drama, and as a result the tone is often too similar throughout. For all the play’s mention of silence, it never makes enough use of it. Of course, there is supposed to be irony in this (Collins creates a great comedic moment by constantly talking about the silence, actually preventing it from existing), but the pauses are never quite felt, and the shouting becomes too much – especially at what is presumably the play’s climax, when we are subjected to endless unintelligible yelling from Collins and Feast, which, like the characters doing the screaming, quickly outstays its welcome.
Because of these stereotypes and their brash characterisations, by the time the second half comes to a head we have been constantly pelted with misogyny and homophobia, and after a while it starts to wear a little thin. Sure, it’s ironic. The play is not for these things, but against them. But it really starts to become evident that the play can do little else other than have characters hurl abuse at each other and make vague religious references. Unfortunately, it misses every mark it tries to hit. It is constantly trying to say something about everything – sexism, homophobia, abuse, religion, broken relationships, drug use, isolation – but spreads itself too thinly. As it is, The Glass Supper is highly entertaining, but struggles to create the impact it aims for.
The Glass Supper is playing Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 26 July. For more information and tickets, see Hampstead Theatre’s website.