Closer by Patrick Marber

by Patrick Marber
Whitirea Theatre until July 1st

An intimate evening spent in the company of appalling people, and I’m not talking about the severely dressed and somewhat sniffy mid-week audience. This 1997 play about the sexual machinations of a quartet of privileged London bozos was filmed in 2004. I’ve never seen the film or any of the handsome Imaginary Bees actors before, so at least I came to this production with only my own violent personal prejudices and a bad case of sleep deprivation, much to my bodyguard Anita’s concern.

I was interested in seeing the inside of the performance space at Whitirea for my own reasons (of which more later), and initially I thought the cold fluorescent space we walked into with a few chairs arranged around the perimeter might be it. How daring to stage it with a refreshments table centre stage! How casually the audience stood around in their black coats! Alas, dear reader, this was the lobby.

The actual performance space we were ushered into was a cavernous black concrete rectangle, with bleacher seating along its long sides, and Penny Angrick’s rib-like wooden partitions (the set’s, not Penny’s) dividing the stage along its length, with enough space between the slats for the actors to stroll through, loiter, bump and grind, miss seeing each other, eavesdrop, and lie to each other. There was rather a lot of that sort of thing.

After a strong start it seems we will like and relate to these characters, but it’s quickly established that they are sexually incontinent creeps who cheat on each other with great energy and casualness, yet can’t take it when someone does it to them. They live immensely comfortable and sheltered lives, yet are continually unhappy. They let us know this in a variety of ways during the play, and by the end they’ve established their position quite well.

The sole sympathetic character, waifish stripper Alice (played with great passion by the tiny Jessica Aaltonen) is the only one of the four you give a damn about, the rest are awful people behaving badly and could all do with a good slap. The hero is channeling Hugh Grant, which is distracting. The other actress (Alison Walls) is also distressingly tiny, but taller. They fail the Bechdel test by only talking about the men in their brief scenes together. Three of the four look a bit young for their characters, although the acting was uniformly excellent, despite the empathy gap that grows over the long evening. Inexplicably the entire audience is driven out to the refreshment table while the stage is reset for the second half, but the only thing that’s altered when you return is Aaltonen, now wearing a wig and very little else.

It’s a very sad play heroically performed, but by the ending (which felt a bit like Hugh Grant’s long speech at the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral) I remembered a review of the film seven years ago which effectively asked why any of us were supposed to give a damn about these dreadful, vapid people.

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