Such was the overwhelmingly positive reaction of audience members around me to what was going on in Birthday Suit that the show came across like a television sitcom with canned laughter. For the most part, it was very silly and ridiculous, but it had such a warm spirit and a certain charm about it that I was won over by about halfway through the second act. At that point, a pinnacle of hilarity is reached, before it becomes hard-hitting (both literally and symbolically) surprisingly quickly.
A pity, then, that the remaining half an hour or so seemed to drag on. It’s as though the play was running out of momentum, crawling to an eventual finish. The set gives the production an airy feel, if not necessarily a light one, cluttered with drinks and nibbles for a sparsely attended party. Like the party in Dead Funny, still playing at the Vaudeville Theatre at the time of writing, the date of the party clashes with another event, and the other event proved infinitely more popular. For various reasons (I won’t give everything away), the said drinks and nibbles end up in a mess all over the place, a metaphor for the unpredictability and untidiness of real life.
From the perspective of character development, the first couple of scenes are excellent. However, while it is great that the show assumes the audience know nothing about its characters, it seems to assume that the characters know nothing about one another either. Nick (Philip Honeywell) and Diane (EJ Martin) come across in David K Barnes’ script as a pair who have only just met: the dialogue, however, makes clear theirs is a long-term relationship. That said, this helps to capture the natural awkwardness that arises from being the only guests at a house party that was meant to be packed to the rafters. At least Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard only invited one man to her party in the first place.
The British reserve is predominant, particularly in the first half. I would love to see how a play of this nature would turn out in somewhere like the United States, where it is feasible to be more forthright while retaining civility. Instead, slightly predictability, the pressure cooker flies off the handle eventually, such that parts of the second half then are borderline ‘screamathons’. The show thus lurches from one extreme to the other in terms of suppressed and then heightened emotions. What’s interesting is that in a contemporary world where a traditional macho alpha male is seen as outdated, both the men in the show, Richard (Liam Bewley) and Nick, do not fit that stereotype, and yet still prove, in the end, undesirable to Valerie (Emily Stride) and Diane respectively. Perhaps the so-called ‘seven-year itch’ is as real to the Facebook generation as it is for the baby boomers.
There is sufficient variation between characters; each of them is clearly distinctive from one another. The gentlemen elicit sympathy from the audience, partly from being hen-pecked and partly because it takes them so long to speak their minds without hindrance that when they finally do the extent to which they have suffered in silence and for so long is breath-taking. Bewley’s Richard in particular, drew audible ‘ahhs’ from the audience – after all, everything’s going wrong and, as he points out, “It’s my birthday!”.
Nobody comes out entirely blameless in this genuinely amusing and absorbing production. It could do with a little tightening, but as it is, it’s a hoot.
Review by Chris Omaweng
It’s Richard’s birthday. The big 4-0. He’s throwing a party and inviting all his colleagues. Diane is new to the firm, and, delighted to be asked, she’s brought along her boyfriend, Nick, who has promised to be the spirit of party itself.
There’s trifle. Lots of trifle. And nibbles. There’s just one problem. Nobody else is coming to Richard’s party.
It looks like Diane and Nick are in for a long evening, trapped with their peculiar host and their own worst anxieties. Until, that is, someone does turn up. Someone with a lot of history, and an appetite for revenge.
Birthday Suit will be a world premiere from David K Barnes who is most well-known for his acclaimed podcast Wooden Overcoats.
By David K. Barnes
Director: Alice Malin; Designer: Georgia de Grey
Cast: Liam Bewley (Richard), Philip Honeywell (Nick), EJ Martin (Diane) and Emily Stride (Valerie)
On 13 January 7.30pm
At The Old Red Lion Theatre
418 St John Road, London EC1V 4NJ