Gina Gionfriddo’s sharply-written comedy was originally inspired by the notion of a contemporary version of Becky Sharp, Vanity Fair’s devious social climber, placed in modern-day America. Gionfriddo’s Becky (superbly realised by Daisy Haggard) is a 35 year old Ivy League drop-out turned office temp with a tendency to self-harm when things don’t go her way. A perennial victim - lonely, eager to please and desperate to be loved - she is never likely to prove a match for the straight-talking, pragmatic, no-shit-taking Max, yet after their disastrous blind date, the over-emotional Becky clings on with terrifying determination.
Haggard’s portrayal of Becky is incredibly human. Her woefully transparent, forced lightness makes us cringe (often in uncomfortable recognition of our own flaws) but she also elicits genuine compassion. Unlike Thackeray’s Becky, we can never be sure if her behaviour is consciously intended to manipulate or if she is in fact an innocent who is ill-used by others, and she is likely to divide audiences on this account, making for interesting post-show debate.
Max is played to perfection by David Wilson Barnes, the sole member of the original cast, who does a remarkable job of making a potentially very dislikeable character really quite charming. Brutal, contemptuous, with an obstinate refusal to conform to social convention, i.e. basic manners: on paper, Max is loathsome. Yet we can’t help but adore him. His no-nonsense attitude and brutal, shrewd candour make him a kind of anti-hero. Haydn Gwynne’s deliciously scathing Susan is similarly cutting, yet she too ends up a firm favourite.
Bouncing off one another with dexterity, energy and precision, the actors don’t allow the pace to drop for a second. There’s no indulgence here, no sentimentality. In what is probably the most effective moment of the entire play, director Peter DuBois flirts with the possibility of Max submitting to emotion, only to snatch it right back with the unexpected re-entrance of Becky, slickly shifting us from drama back to comedy. This single brief glimpse into Max’s emotional life was far more powerful and gratifying than it would have been had it been played out in full.
With its harsh truths about love and the concessions and compromise required for functional relationships, this play is a reality check for the idealistic. It examines the ethics of not just romantic relationships, but those between family and between friends. Exactly how much do we ‘owe’ one another? How much responsibility is allotted us by our involvement in the lives of others? Susan’s opinion is that relationships are a ‘mutually advantageous bargain’. Max is convinced that marriage and prostitution are synonymous, that ‘love is a happy by-product of use’. Even Becky insists that ‘that’s what loving someone is: doing something you don’t want to do.’ The great thing about this play is that, morally, it remains on the fence. It doesn’t prescribe or lecture or judge but, like the best kind of theatre, it makes us ask questions.
By Victoria Rudland.