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Four Play (Theatre503, London): Review

four play Door play. Cai Brigden (left), Michael Gilbert (centre), and Peter Hannah. Photograph: Courtesy of Richard Lakos.

Four Play is a deep and clean tap into modern relationship neurosis, with pinpoint honesty and observation. Hilarious and poignant.

In Four Play, Raffe and Pete have been together for seven years (seven and a half to be exact), and they’re stuck in a rut. They’ve never had sex with anyone else in their lives. So, they illicit the services of Andrew, a friend who is in an open relationship with Andrew, to help them solve their conundrum. But will it make things better or worse?

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Door play. Cai Brigden (left), Michael Gilbert (centre), and Peter Hannah. Photograph: Courtesy of Richard Lakos.

Writing

Facebook sums things up quite succinctly when it comes to relationships: “It’s complicated”. In a more liberal society, relationship models and dynamics are varied, including everything from traditional monogamy to polyamory. So many options can leave you a little boggled, and what you thought you knew about one way to make a relationship work sometimes gets a spanner thrown into the works. In Four Play, this is exactly what writer Jake Brunger sets out to explore: two polemic relationship models and how they effect Four Play’s sets of characters. In doing so, Brunger tries to find some human definition and practise of theory to how we live out partnered lives, rather than offer a dry analytical debate devoid of character.

To do this, Brunger has put together a piece that is full of well-rounded and deep characters, written with lightness, honesty, and photographic observation, making them believable in who they are and in how the interact with each other. The quartet of people are written with such minute detail that actually brings out its own natural hilarity and never at any point feels forced. There are points where you’ll find yourself roaring out loud with laughter at some wonderful moments that are just the characters being naturally ridiculous or far out of their depth. But what this also does is make the exploration of relationship models very measured and down to earth. Four Play doesn’t uphold one model above the other, but explores the pros and cons based on each couple’s dynamics, leaving you questioning what you thought you knew about both monogamy and polygamy as you witness how each couple’s specific personalities and circumstance can affect the success or failure of both.

Brunger’s pinpoint honesty and observation also means that as much as there are organically incredibly funny moments, there are also moments of real poignancy and drama. Four Play’s characters are constantly learning a lot about themselves, their partners, and their relationship ideals, with anxiety, optimism, and more often than not, confusion. Arguments and clashes are often spiked with comic moments, but simultaneously also hit a firm truth that really resonates no matter where your relationship persuasion lies. The result is that you’re Four Play grips you firmly around the funny bone as well as the brain, for a thrilling experience.

Furthermore, Four Play is billed as a “non-gay gay play”, and I couldn’t agree more. The characters are gay, but the subject, issues, and jokes in Four Play are merely human. Brunger’s decision to have two sets of gay couples merely makes the narrative set-up in Four Play nice and clean, without having to muddle thing’s about with different genders (although it’s entirely possible and feasible to do so). Brunger’s characters and situation is sexuality neutral, and people really shouldn’t be put off by the characters being gay, because Four Play is ultimately a brilliant sexuality-neutral masterpiece.

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Floor play. Michael Gilbert (left) and Peter Hannah (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Richard Lakos.

Direction & Production

As always, Theatre503’s production team have put on an exquisite and high quality show. Cecilia Carey’s design, although looks bare, is a brilliant canvas for little surprises, and a intuitive space to allow a focus on Four Plays incredibly rich and ravishing writing. Carey plays with versatility, but also height, symmetry, and obstructions in very simple ways that director Jonathan O’Boyle really exploits for some stunning moments. Despite it’s clean modern modesty, it still manages to conjure everything from high-end compartment, to bar, parks, and even a seedy hotel. On top of this, Jack Weir’s lighting design that is absolutely stunning. Behind Carey’s swish polka-dot wooden panels are hundreds of colour LEDs which light, flash, and change hue to create warmth, cold, and some exciting scene changes to Max Perryment’s fresh and urban original music that really keeps the energy at top octane throughout. But during the scenes, Weir adds subtle but luscious topical blushes on top of playing with the light boards behind the plywood. Four Play is possibly Theatre503’s most impressive stage and lighting design for a show yet.

O’Boyle also knows exactly how to capitalise on Four Play’s text to get the most out of it.. The energy is always pushed but never feels rushed, giving it a constant sense of direction making the 75 minutes or so absolutely fly by. But O’Boyle also leaves room for detail, especially from their actors. There are countless ticks and glances in the cast’s performance that add to a sense of character or bring out an audience-wide guffaw. O’Boyle that knows performance is not just in the text, but also in the little actions and interactions. Elsewhere, especially in the more dramatic moments, O’Boyle gives scenes just enough space and time to feel natural before launching it forward to the next bit. With regards to space, O’Boyle relishes and makes great use of the ample stage to not only to play with physical distance and intimacy between the characters, but also to simultaneously create visual variety and some striking looking moments.

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Three play. Cai Brigden (right), Michael James (centre), and Michael Gilbert. Photograph: Courtesy of Richard Lakos.

Performance

All four actors in Four Play are absolutely fantastic. Michael Gilbert as Pete may well be a character who is comparatively quiet to the rest of the cast, but exerts a silent dominance and presence none the less. Gilbert, especially, excels in their at times wordless performance which bring the house down with so much as raised eyebrows or scathing side-eye, marking them as a brilliant actor of powerful nuance. Cai Brigden as Raffe is adorably neurotic but also exudes a precious, gentle, and endearing sentimentality. Peter Hannah as Michael is wonderfully brash with a brilliant hint of cynicism that really carries their character, but also isn’t allowed to show us some of the character’s deep seated insecurities. And Michael James as Andrew is blissfully bitter with a stinging confidence that offsets a powerfully wounded sense of martyrdom.

But as well as Gilbert, Brigden, Hannah, and James work as individuals, the dynamics between them and their respective on-stage partner is just as laudable. Gilbert and Brigden are really sweet, and there are a couple of moments they share together that are just beautifully tender, although you still get hints of the turbulence beneath it. And whilst Hannah and James on the surface seem fractious, it is underpinned by a deeper and yearning foundation that make them captivating to watch fight for their relationship. Each manages to feel completely believable and natural, and could easily be any real life sets of couples that you know yourself. The entire cast’s ability to get straight into the humanity of Four Play is refreshing and exhilarating, culminating in performances that do absolute justice to Brunger’s observations.

Verdict

A perfect marriage of outstanding writing and superlative production, Four Play is an ecstatic theatrical fling.

Four Play plays at Theatre503, London, SW11 3BW, until 12 March 2016. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit theatre503.com.