Cul-De-Sac 4 stars
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
If George Orwell had been around to write an episode of Terry And June, he might well have turned in something like this three-hander by Matthew Osborn. For what starts out as a front-lawn comedy of manners – very bourgeois, very buttoned up, very English – becomes a kind of 1984 with laughs.
The deeper we get into the play, the more we realise the repressions, neuroses and reactionary politics of the three middle-aged neighbours living in their faux-Georgian cul-de-sac are a product not merely of their emotionally damaging public-school education, but of a totalitarian regime in microcosm.
So if you can imagine seeing the funny side of a boot stamping on a human face forever, this is what Osborn pulls off. In this Comedians Theatre Company production, Alan Francis plays a Volvo-driving dog-owner with a teenage daughter en route to Oxbridge. He's new to the close – the previous family left in mysterious circumstances – which means Mike Hayley's neighbour Nigel has to fill him in on all the goings on. Meanwhile, Toby Longworth's Dr Cole is more interested in his golf swing than his patients, happy as long as the cul-de-sac's values are being upheld.
At first, in this spin on The Stepford Wives, the joke is about the men's stiff-upper-lip inability to show emotion except when it blurts out in xenophobic or homophobic remarks. The three actors hit the balance between being both clubbable and detached, showing a precise feel for Osborn's comic rhythms. But through the unseen figure of Tony Devereux, whose tyrannous hold over the close is worthy of Orwell's Big Brother, the play pushes beyond the familiar bourgeois satire to become a commentary on state control. Behind the laughs is a metaphor for the way dictatorial regimes hold power not simply through brute force but through the internalised oppression, self-censorship and social control of their people.
There's room for the piece to push further in this direction, room too for speedier transitions between scenes in Maggie Inchley's production, but as absurdist comedies go, this one's more thoughtful than most.
Until 29 August
© Mark Fisher 2011
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