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Muswell Hill is a cleverly written and well-acted production

Muswell Hill at Park Theatre. Jack Johns (Mat) and Annabel Bates (Jess).
Muswell Hill at Park Theatre. Jack Johns (Mat) and Annabel Bates (Jess). Photo credit Boris Mitkov

Following a sold out run at the White Bear Theatre. Muswell Hill by Torben Betts has now arrived at the Park Theatre. Two seemingly different and opposite worlds are the focus of the play, which looks at both the after effects of a devastating earthquake in Haiti alongside a 1970s style evening in leafy and affluent north London. While the after effects of the earthquake will stay in memories for years, those in London worry about whether or not any of them will be remembered, and if so, why?

Events take place in the intimate setting of the Studio 90 at the Park Theatre. In their comfortable home in London, Jess and Mat await the arrival of their guests: some more welcome than others. While she is a well-paid and successful accountant, he is an aspiring writer who seems to receive nothing but rejections from publishers.

One strong focal element of the play is the way it looks at the ways people can be divided from each other, even when they are together. For Jess (Annabel Bates) and Mat (Jack Johns) this is clear from the beginning, where the pair appear to be having two separate conversations with each other. While she is focused on her phone, his attention is on his laptop. Simon (Ralph Aiken) is also divided from other people but in a different way. He finds it hard to interact with others, unless he is giving information, and only talks openly about his past when he is alone. In contrast Karen (Charlotte Pyke) is also caught in her own world: focused on the death of her partner three years ago. Her rapid pace of speech and abrupt changes are a contrast to the more calm and controlled pace of Jess, and her wry, slightly morbid sense of humour leads to a darkly funny atmosphere onstage.

The strong cast also includes Nicole Abraham as Jess’ younger adopted sister Annie and her somewhat older fiancé Tony (Gregory Cox). Annie is an impulsive and highly energetic young woman who is a direct contrast to her older sister and seems, for Jess, more like Annie’s substitute father than her fiancé.

Muswell Hill at Park Theatre. Gregory Cox (Tony) and Ralph Aiken (Simon).
Muswell Hill at Park Theatre. Gregory Cox (Tony) and Ralph Aiken (Simon). Photo credit Boris Mitkov

Some of the most effective elements for me as an audience member were the design of the set and the staging. Having seen Out of the Cage previously in the same space, I was intrigued to see how it was used here for Muswell Hill. Rearranging the seating to create a theatre in the round leaves the audience feeling they are almost part of the cast, sitting in the middle of the drama as unseen observers. The stark and simple modern setting of Jess and Mat’s kitchen is interspaced with piles of dusty rubble, that are apparently unseen by the characters. For the audience it seems like a reminder of the destruction and devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti, suggesting that the two worlds may not be as divided as they could appear. Instead there seems to be a division between the characters, as shown through the socially awkward and uncomfortable conversations between them. Even when the characters do talk, it seems as though they are not really listening.

Muswell Hill at Park Theatre. Nicole Abraham (Annie) and Annabel Bates (Jess).
Muswell Hill at Park Theatre. Nicole Abraham (Annie) and Annabel Bates (Jess). Photo credit Boris Mitkov

By the second act, it seems like some of the characters have managed to find a way to listen to each other and to bond. Simon and Karen initially dislike each other, and yet go on to develop a connection and relationship with each other. However while some couples become closer, others start to be divided. Annie’s behaviour causes problems with her engagement to the older Tony, while Mat’s fears that Jess is having an affair lead to an emotional and unavoidable confrontation at the end of the play. It seems as though, through their previous stilted conversations, Jess and Tony have avoided dealing with any of their problems but the events of Muswell Hill force them to take a good look at their lives. The events in Haiti may be far away in terms of geographical distance but what happens there causes those here to think about what they are doing with their lives. While Mat continues to dream of success that will somehow confirm and justify his life, Jess believes he may have to accept that he is “just another ordinary person” instead.

Muswell Hill is a cleverly written, well-acted production that looks closely at how people can become completely wrapped up in their lives, until something or someone forces them to stop and think about other things and other people instead.
4 stars

Review by Amanda Blake

Cast: Nicole Abraham (Annie), Ralph Aiken (Simon), Annabel Bates (Jess), Gregory Cox (Tony), Jack Johns (Mat), Charlotte Pyke (Karen).
Directors: Roger Mortimer and Deborah Edgington, Designer: Nancy Surman, Lighting Designer: Jack Weir.
Our recent interview with Gregory Cox

13th January 2010 – an earthquake in Haiti leaves a hundred thousand people dead and almost two million homeless. Meanwhile in a leafy north London suburb, six individuals sit down to avocado and prawns – “so reassuringly 1970s” – followed by a monkfish stew. They admire their host’s beautifully appointed kitchen, fret about their “ambitious” mortgages, make holiday plans, compare mobile phone tariffs, connect with Facebook friends, and worry that they might after all just be ordinary – will history remember any of them, and if so, what for?

Muswell Hill is a blackly funny, touching and ultimately devastating play, exploring the disintegration of a relationship in a world in which the fragile veneer of comfort and contentment conceals realities too uncomfortable to face.

Two Sheds Theatre in association with Park Theatre presents Muswell Hill by Torben Betts
Plawright: Torben Betts
Directors: Roger Mortimer & Deborah Edgington
Designer: Nancy Surman
Lighting Designer: Jack Weir
Stage Manager: Martin Brady
17th February to 14th March 2015
https://www.parktheatre.co.uk

Friday 20th February 2015

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