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Belleville at Donmar Warehouse – Review

There’s a lovely image of Paris that’s conjured up by certain shows and motion pictures, portraying it as the so-called city of love and romance. Then there’s the reality of the French capital, where, for example, authorities have had to remove many tonnes of lovers’ padlocks from bridges because their combined weight was starting to cause structural damage. There’s damage of a different sort in Belleville, which shows Zack (James Norton) and Abby (Imogen Poots), Americans living in Paris, in a complicated marriage.

Notwithstanding that some may wish to question whether a marriage could be anything other than complicated, the root cause of the couple’s problems seems to lie in a reticence from Zack. It’s not so much outright lying as withholding the truth, and in committing himself to not wanting to cause pain and heartache, Zack paradoxically ends up doing exactly that. It’s not unlike Death of a Salesman, where the man is no longer employed but continues to behave as though he is, eventually resulting in a downward spiral.

In a world where mobile telephony in theatres is an ongoing point of irritation for patrons (with, in my humble opinion, every justification), the irony is not lost on Abby’s attachment to her smartphone. Her drive to be always and forever connected leads her to become disconnected from Zack: a case of thinking outside the box so much that what is in the box itself becomes neglected.

Alioune (Malachi Kirby) and Amina (Faith Alabi) are rather underwritten supporting roles, and I daresay their story came across to me as more interesting than the main plotline. He runs his own business, she is from Senegal and has assimilated into Parisian living, and together they are busy raising a family. Friend but landlord, landlord but friend, Alioune finds himself having to evict Zack (and therefore Abby too) for being four months behind on their rent.

A show that provokes an audible response from the audience can only mean one thing: there’s something in the show that the audience is responding to. I mustn’t give too much away, so I’ll just say this – talk about living life on a knife-edge. Exhausted from what she describes as the “pressure to be happy” from both her husband and her family, Poots puts in a compelling performance as Abby, a character that may simply have married too young.

A moderately paced production, my initial verdict on the final scene was that it was a bit of an anti-climax and wasn’t strictly necessary. With the benefit of hindsight (by which I mean a chance to reflect on the Tube home), it stands to reason that audiences can never have enough reminders that, as millennials like Zack and Abby might put it, ‘YOLO’ (you only live once).

James Norton has a remarkably charming stage presence as Zack, portraying both compassionate and controlling sides to a personality that means well but has started living a lie, with ever more elaborate cover-ups to maintain it, before it all comes crashing down like an imploding Ponzi scheme. The chemistry between Zack and Abby is convincing. As a whole, however, the plot is not, to be blunt, wholly absorbing, but the powerhouse performances from the cast make this a thoughtful and worthwhile experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Americans Zack and Abby are bright, young and recently married. He’s a doctor combating infant disease. She’s an actress, also teaching yoga. It’s just before Christmas and they’re living the expat highlife in bohemian Belleville, Paris.

It’s all a little too perfect.

Writer Amy Herzog is ‘one of the brightest new talents in the theater’ (New York Times). Her acclaimed play about a romantic dream gone sour receives its UK premiere. Michael Longhurst (Amadeus, National Theatre; Constellations, Royal Court, West End and Broadway) directs at the Donmar for the first time.

Four of the UK’s most exciting young actors all make their Donmar debuts: Faith Alabi, Malachi Kirby, James Norton and Imogen Poots.

7th December 2017 – 3rd February 2018
By Amy Herzog


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