Monogamy at Park Theatre is a sharp, incisive comedy, that smartly combines elements of farce with social commentary to reach a shocking crescendo at its finale, complete with Chekhovian gun (or in this show, Chekhovian knife).
It begins with TV chef Caroline Mortimer (Janie Dee) showing a camera crew around her kitchen as she interviews a Swedish chef. It’s all very Saturday Kitchen, but the steam eventually clears to reveal a more Nigella-style scandal lurking underneath once the cameras leave.
Unhappy in her marriage and struggling to communicate with her somewhat combative son Leo (Jack Archer), Caroline celebrates his graduation from Cambridge University by cooking a meal and lubricating the evening with freely flowing wine, though we’re assured she hasn’t needed such an excuse before.
Her dysfunctional upper middle-class world is disrupted by the presence of her new cocaine-addled publicist Amanda (Genevieve Gaunt), whose mispronunciations of French we are supposed to laugh at, as well as builder Graeme (Jack Sandle), whose muscled presence in Caroline’s kitchen brings with it a palpable tension (no prizes for guessing what’s happening there).
We are given only fleetingly explicit insights into Graeme and Amanda’s lives (though Graeme’s home life turns out to be much more important to the plot than you might expect), as this is a play about Caroline’s life and her personal struggles. That in itself seems to be commentary from playwright Torben Betts – not that Caroline’s problems are any easier (her emotional repression and loneliness have as much consequence as anything else in the play) but that she has help willing to make it all go away, at least in the eyes of the public who love her.
The women in this play are the MVPs. Amanda, played brilliantly by Gaunt, at first looks like a one-dimensional character whose main trait is her Essex accent, but we gradually see more depth, and end up empathising with her at least as much as her boss who we see far more of. Similarly Charlie Brooks gives a nuanced performance as Sally, a mentally ill young woman, to whom life has not been kind, and only made more difficult by the interference of Caroline.
But really, this is Dee’s show. She proves yet again that she is one of the greatest talents working in British theatre today – she creates a role that is so believable and so compelling, making us understand Caroline even if her situation is as far removed from most of ours as it can get. The final scenes showcase her talents the most, whether it’s the physicality of her sexually charged stand-off with her builder or the passion of a religious epiphany.
That is not to say the men don’t give fine performances too, of course – there is no weak link in this cast. Patrick Ryecart makes quite an entrance as Caroline’s blustering eyebrow of a husband (an ex-banker, in case the kitchen island wasn’t enough to make you realise the Mortimers are rich), whilst Archer and Sandle are convincing as Caroline’s son and lover respectively.
The set, likewise, is perfect, with all the trappings of a perfect middle-class lifestyle that slowly unravels along with the plot, and Alastair Whatley’s direction is slick, but never so much that you feel you know where the next move is coming from.
It takes a while to hit its stride but once it does, Monogamy flows as well as the wine into Caroline’s glass, as she gets drunker and every set up in the first act gets a payoff. It is an acerbic, often laugh-out-loud take on marriage, privilege and class, and it is well worth a ticket to see the ending alone, because reader, I gasped.
Reviewed by Laura Stanley
Photo: Tristram Kenton