Mike Bartlett plays are a bit like the Number 11 bus – you wait for ages and then three come along all at once. First came Cock at the tiny Ambassadors theatre, which I missed, then The 47th at the Old Vic starring Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump which I will see next week and now at the Lyric comes Scandaltown starring Rachel Stirling . Three plays on at once is pretty good going for any playwright although Cock is a revival. The other two, however, are new. Scandaltown is very funny and a mess. Bartlett has chosen to write a Restoration Comedy in which a selection of choice social monsters and young rake hells of both sexes, as well as a couple of ripe for corruption innocents, are put through their paces. At the centre is Rachel Stirling as Lady Susan Climber, a down on her luck reality TV star seeking a new show, firing on all guns , but the plot ties itself in knots. Act one has a running gag about three characters all wearing pierrot costumes who get paired off with the wrong person, act two reveals just who Lady Susan’s children are and she has a running gag wearing an all covering coat which hides something she is told by everyone not reveal to the world and we all know how that one ends.
In other words for every good joke there is a tired one. The set is also ghastly, never quite managing to create the world in which the characters live be it sharing a slum flat for the young to attending a super posh Netflix party for the others although to be fair lady Susan does get a rather fine portrait of herself above her chaise longue. But the people in Restoration comedy are real, these are caricatures, comic types from rake hell youth to virgin boy discovering the joys of sex with the older woman.
Phoebe (Cecilia Apiah) is an idealistic young woman who goes to London to seek out her twin Jack (Matthew Broome) who has stopped contacting her and has, she fears, succumbed to a life of drugs and dissolution. She disguises herself as a man for no very good reason and ends up as the new flat sharer Jack and his friends need in order to pay their rent. Meanwhile Lady Susan, who has dallied with Jack, has hired a PR, Hannah Tweetwell (Aysha Kata) to boost her chances of new show unaware that the PR hates her and plans a dreadful revenge. Everyone ends up at a Netflix costume ball and all sorts of couplings take place because three of the people there are wearing the same costume – the Tory minister Lady Susan hopes to get is collected by Jack’s gay flatmate, Freddie Peripheral (Luke Hornsby) while she gets big time TV producer Rosalind Double Budget’s virginal son Tom (Thomas Josling), who wants to be the new Ken Loach. The mix is fine, but the resolution is confusing and what should spiral into glorious madness before all is resolved and everyone lives unhappily ever after gets tiresome. However there are several performances to enjoy, especially Stirling with big hair throwing everything she has at the role and Richard Golding as Matt Eton, the sleazy Tory minister on the make, half Gove, half Hancock, who is up for whatever is going and gets the Johnson jokes at the end to deliver. Sadly these stick out like a sore thumb instead of being the verdict on the ones who are having a whale of a time in the one rule for them, another one for us who govern Britain today.
In spite of the laughs, the good jokes, the endless debauchery, the nice mix of how people talk today and in Restoration comedy the play is ultimately more miss than hit.
Phoebe Virtue : Cecilia Appia).
Jack Virtue : Matthew Broome.
Aunty Julia & Rebecca De Souza: Emma Cunniffe.
Peter Media & Carson: Henry Everett.
Matt Eton: Richard Golding.
Freddie Peripheral: Luke Hornsby.
Tom Double Budget: Tom Josling.
Hannah Tweetwell: Aysha Kala.
Rosalind Double-Budget: Anette McLauighlin.
Jenny Hood:ASny Okumara Jones.
Sir Dennis Hedge & Kevin the Postman: Chukwuma Omambala.
Lady Susan Climber: Rachel Stirling.
Director: Rachel O’Riordan.
Set Designer: Good Teeth.
Costume Designer: Kinnetia Isidore.
Lighting Designer: Paul Keogan.
Choreographer: Malik Nashad Sharpe.
Wigs, Hair & Makeup Designer: Susanna Peretz.
Production Phonography: Marc Brenner.