Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Muswell Hill

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Muswell Hill

Article excerpt

Muswell Hill

Park Theatre, until 14 March

How I Learned to Drive

Southwark Playhouse, until 14 March

Torben Betts is much admired by his near-namesake Quentin Letts for socking it to London trendies. Letts is one of the few individuals who enjoys the twin blessings of a Critics' Circle membership card and a functioning brain so his views deserve serious attention.

The title of Betts's 2012 play Muswell Hill shifts its target into the cross hairs with no subtlety whatsoever. Curtain up. Married couple, Jess and Mat, are nervily tidying their yuppie dream home in expectation of supper guests. Jess is a sex-bomb accountant. Mat is a blankly handsome scribbler whose debut novel keeps getting rejected. Then a missile strikes. Mat casually mentions his acquaintanceship with an Australian electrician whom Jess has been secretly entertaining. Tense silence. The doorbell rings. Into this emotional quagmire march two damaged misfits. Karen is a vegan widow (enough said), and Simon is a ranting Trot who wants to burn capitalism to the ground and dance in the embers handing out sweeties to grateful orphans. Fresh arrivals swan in. Tony is a pompous grey-haired clot (beautifully done by Gregory Cox), who makes shedloads of dosh directing Shakespeare at American universities. A perk of the job is a luscious harem of actresses from whom to pick and choose. His latest selection, alcoholic Annie, has secured from him a promise of marriage which he now bitterly regrets. The three couples crash and bounce off each other with gruesome results. I found it all quite funny and sharp but, perhaps, a little contrived.

My neighbour, a tall, lanky Gillette-dodger about the same age as the characters, snuffled and chortled with pleasure at every line. Evidently he was determined to get his money's worth from a show that threw a white-hot searchlight on to the follies of his bourgeois chums. At the interval he clapped so hard I thought his palms might catch fire. Who was this fanatic? A snatch of eavesdropped conversation revealed him to be a certain playwright: Torben Betts.

Act Two began and his gleeful reception of every witticism and plot twist increased. Did I find this irksome? On the contrary, it was an unexpected delight to be seated alongside a writer who was receiving so much amused stimulation from his own efforts. But I fear his innocent joy may have softened my criticisms, which are threefold. …

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