Andrew is already preparing for his own unique celebrations by folding his Winceyette jim-jams, tucking them under his pillow and fretting about whether he will have cocoa or Horlicks. He will of course then, as ever, retire to bed at 9.30pm knowing that this time he’ll wake up in a year in which he’ll get to see Debbie Reynolds and possibly Dame Julie Andrews and be happily oblivious by the time the rest of the country is trilling Auld Lang Syne.
But unlike Andrew, some people never learn. Certainly not the characters in Michael Wynne‘s seasonal comedy The Priory who have been gathered together by Kate (Jessica Hynes) to see in the new year in, er, The Priory. Sadly it is not set in the Whingers favourite rehab retreat but a country house that’s so the middle of nowhere there isn’t even a mobile signal for the thirtysomething media types (writer, “resting” actor, TV producer etc). Yes there is no escape. And a mysterious hooded figure is glimpsed outside the window. The Agatha Christie set-up (updated to cope with plot-sapping cell phones) looked rather promising.
Sadly Mr Wynne drops the long-awaited revival of the thriller in favour of something a bit more Ayckbourn: the only skeletons falling out of the closet are the metaphorical kind. Oh, how the Whingers long for a new mystery or a whodunnit. Still, as slight dark relationship comedy/dramas go, The Priory isn’t bad.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ rather grand set is littered with stag heads, some very nasty nick nacks and a variety of games including Ker Plunk, Guess Who? Scruples and Balderdash which the Whingers hoped in vain would be put to use. A game of Ker-plunk on stage would be particularly impressive and to be honest one of the main implausibilities of the play is how Jessica Hynes, Rupert Penry-Jones, Rachael Stirling, Joseph Millson, Jeremy Herrin, Alastair Mackenzie and Charlotte Riley resist the temptation to rip the lid off and get stuck in with threading the plastic straws through the little hole.
Anyway, New Years Eve goes haywire, people re-evaluate their criteria of “success”, relationships unravel, someone nearly dies etc etc. The usual stuff. It’s may seen exaggerated but then Phil recalls a memorable Christmas where the host split up with his partner on Christmas day over a row about the brussels sprouts. Christmas dinner being eaten in near silence apart from said host insisting crackers were still pulled, then with a hand on either end of a cracker pulling it close to the ear of his elderly mother. He then proceeded to pour champagne through her fingers as she held it over the top of her glass as she insisted, “I’m not in the mood for champagne.” Ah, happy days.
Anyway, there is also an attempt to get cheap laughs from having cast members running around in silly costumes or dragged up which got Phil’s back up. Andrew didn’t mind too much until Rupert Penry-Jones sat on the sofa and exposed his bare feet (Andrew hates feet) but at least (unlike the last occasion) Joseph Millson kept his covered.
Ruperty Penry-Jones and Jessica Hynes
It’s amusing at times but Phil found the first act fairly underwhelming though the shortcomings are compensated for by a truly excellent cast. Hynes (or Stevenson as she was; she of the very brilliant Spaced) seems to have shied away from doing comedy of late (we don’t count the deeply unfunny Ayckbourn nonsense as comedy) so it was a welcome chance to see her exercise her skills in the play’s lighter moments. Millson (very good as a gay) and Penry-Jones are convincing and Charotte Riley (girlfriend to Tom Hardy who was in the audience) makes the best of a (mainly) 2D stupid new girlfriend role.
Special mention to Rachael Stirling (right) as the ghastly braying TV executive/mother (“Mummy won a Bafta. Have you got any awards?”) who flaunts her motherhood in front of the childless Kate in an echo of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (whose dress rehearsal we saw last week but haven’t reviewed because we thought reviewing a rehearsal might just be a step too far for the poor West End producers). The marvellous news is that Stirling does seem to be channelling her mother these days, and a little bit of Frances Barber too. All manage to milk more laughs than the material would suggest on the page (and we know that because we have all the pages because you have to buy the “text” at the Royal Court if you want to know who appeared in House of Eliot (it was Hynes).
The Royal Court is on something of a roll at the moment as their Evening Standard Theatre awards sweep testifies. The Priory may not be quite in the same league but with a cast as solid as this, who cares?
1. Phil witnessed a touching reunion outside the Court. Tom Hardy had just returned from Canada (Phil’s eavesdropping skills are honed to perfection) and turned up to surprise his girlfriend Charlotte Riley. She jumped on him, straddling Hardy with her legs and calling him a sh*t. She was clearly pleased to see him, and no doubt he was too after that.
2. Andrew’s CLOG (Campaign for Less Over-representation of Gays) initiative steps up a notch. To the list of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Public Property, La Cage Aux Folles, Prick Up Your Ears and The Habit Of Art, Cock, Priscilla Queen Of the Desert, The Shawshank Redemption, The Fastest Clock In the Universe etc etc can now be added The Priory which boasts two gay characters in a cast of seven making a gay-o-meter score of 28.6%. The government says real life is 6%. Public Property was 100% if you only count the live actors.
To help playwrights judge how gay the world inside their play is the Whingers are proud do unveil the Gay-O-Meter. We don’t want to bombard you with statistics and figures so here is a simplified version with just three benchmarks for now.