Donmar Warehouse, London – until 3 February 2018
SWEET YOUNG LOVE IN PARIS: NOT… “We’re not going the full Mousetrap here,” said the press desk, “but there is a moment at the end…we’re asking..”. Fine, no spoilers. Plenty else to write about, what with the knife thing and the bath thing and the DIY toe surgery thing (eurgghh!) and the screams and the vomit. And to be honest you never expected it to end in a well.
The plot, I mean: I mean: as a play Amy Herzog’s piece is a cracker, superbly acted by the two fearless principals as young Americans in Paris, and a beautifully contrasted pair, their respectable Senegalese-Muslim landlords downstairs in the shabby Belleville apartment block. Michael Longhurst’s direction is tense, alarming, sometimes funny. So the whole catastrophic unfolding of it is horribly credible.
Perhaps dangerously credible, given current widespread suspicion among over-fifties that the millennial generation, now in late twenties, are messed-up spoilt kids prone to binge drinking, drug use and a whining egotism fed by therapy-theory and the language of obsessive, analytical self-exculpation. As in our heroine Abby’s “I am emotionally abusive. I know that about myself. I’m working on that”.
There is sometimes a dark pleasure to be had in being cruelly judgmental of fictional characters, as one should not be about real people. If that is your pleasure, this will feed it in a most unChristmassy way. If you can raise compassion for the central pair, that’d do too: not least because in Herzog’s artful gradual 100-minute exposition you are never completely confident about which of this couple is to blame for the other’s disastrous state.
Abby – a magnificent Imogen Poots – is first the likely candidate, nervily and shrieking when she sees through the door her husband Zack pleasuring himself over porn, grumbling that French people don’t seem to like her, giving up her language class because “they all speak English”, and patronizing Alioune the neighbour and landlord who has popped by to “pack a bowl” – smoke a bong – with Zack. Who owes him rent.
Abby’s hysteria over being thought to be 32 – she’s 28 – is combined with understandable holiday-season homesickness and a refusal to try and stop obsessively mourning her mother after five years. None of this is endearing. She makes strident emotional demands , moans “I wish I was less disdainful of everyone and expected a little less from myself”, and after passing out dead drunk again whines “Why did you let me drink so much?” though when he tries she yowled about his male “controlling” and having her personality “subsumed” . Best place for it, I’d say. On the other hand, there is something fishy about Zack’s job, porn habit and tendency to crash into the flat of respectable Senegalese neighbours at 3 a.m. searching drunkenly for more drugs.
As you can tell, it’s all a bit Albee, and there is something bracingly merciless – in this age of compulsory compassion – about Herzog’s depiction of someone both mentally ill and shrilly entitled who systematically wrecks a life, marriage and indeed a flat. But it is also horribly entertaining. James Norton’s as clean-cut Zack takes a remarkable journey from calm doctorliness to utter dissolution, and Poots is fearless, pitch-perfect and generally mesmerising. Malachi Kirby and Faith Alabi are perfect as the neighbours: younger, saner, their hardworking immigrant decency a shaming foil to the lost-soul , self-indulgent Westerneners.
I’m not sure where it gets us, but as a portrait of modern disjunction it rivets attention. And an almost silent coda , after the event of which we may not speak, is priceless. Especially when the Macbook Air goes in the binbag. That fact, by the way, wasn’t a spoiler.
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