REVIEW: BIRTHDAY SUIT (Old Red Lion Theatre) ★★★★

The Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington plays host to the world premiere of Birthday Suit by David K. Barnes, most well-known for his acclaimed podcast Wooden Overcoats.

The scene is set: a pristine Canary Wharf flat, white rug and sofa, huge windows and balcony with a fantastic view of the capital. The balloons are blown up, the drinks cabinet is well stocked and the nibbles are out on the coffee table. Everything’s ready for Richard’s fortieth birthday party. He’s invited all his colleagues, including newbie Diane. Delighted at the opportunity to get to know her new workmates better and desperate not to be “the weird kid who ate all the glue” she’s brought along her boyfriend Nick to work a charm offensive.

So far so good; except Diane and Nick are the first to arrive and are forced to engage in awkward small talk with Richard who proves to be slightly peculiar. This is Diane’s worst nightmare; she hates small talk, believing that “if you say ‘what a lovely place’ then you’ve lost”. Just as it’s dawning on Diane that no one else is coming to the party, and there’s a long night ahead, Valerie arrives to liven up the proceedings.

The play is tightly written and the characters are well drawn. The cast of four make or break this show; there’s nowhere to hide on the small stage. They need to make us feel the awkwardness of the party in the moments before most of the guests arrive and they do this brilliantly. Liam Bewley plays host Richard, clinging to the hope that his absent colleagues are just delayed and will turn up at any moment while compensating by over catering. EJ Martin plays neurotic Diane, desperate to fit in at work and devastated to realise that she’s been duped into coming to the party while the rest of her colleagues are having fun elsewhere. Philip Honeywell plays Nick, Diane’s boyfriend who’s come along to do the right thing and has no idea how involved he’s going to become as the evening progresses. Emily Stride plays angry, vengeful Valerie, crashing the party, pushing everyone’s buttons and watching with glee as it descends into revelation upon revelation and the guests’ worlds tumble around them. The whole cast wear the characters’ emotions on their sleeves and there are some excellent bitchy remarks and death stares from Diane and Valerie that feel very real.

We see people we know in these characters and cringe with and for them. Anyone who’s ever had to make awkward small talk with strangers will find familiar ground here and then breathe a sigh of relief that their evening didn’t end up like this one. Make sure you’ve got a drink from the bar downstairs, you’ll need it for this party; in turn laugh out loud funny and tragic. My only complaint is that they didn’t share the party food.

Reviewed by Rhiannon Evans
Photo: Mathew Foster

BIRTHDAY SUIT plays at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 4 February 2017