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Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club at Above the Stag Theatre

Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club - Photo by PBGstudios
Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club – Photo by PBGstudios

In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Harper Lee came up with one of the most quoted sentences of all time. “You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.” Most people only know and use the first part of the quote, especially if a member of their family has exasperated them – I use it all the time about my brothers – but, in writing these words, Harper has perfectly summed up the central theme in Jonathan Harvey’s 1995 play Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club which has just opened the Above the Stag Theatre.

At No 15 Rupert Street, hairdresser Shaun (Tom Whittaker) is living a good old life. He is happily cohabiting with his girlfriend Juliet. His life isn’t bad. The business is doing OK and his home life is good. Well apart from the fact that Juliet has had to go to Barbados for a few weeks to attend her grandfather’s funeral. Still, Shaun isn’t short of company. George (Amy Dunn) the rather dotty left-wing English teacher from the flat below often pops in – often to talk about her ex, Malcolm. More importantly, after too many years estranged, Shaun has made peace with his brother Marti (Hal Geller). Marti and Shaun used to be very close, in fact, Marti practically brought Shaun up in their Liverpool home. But now they are very different people. One happy in domesticated bliss, the other living the high old gay life with visits to dodgy place, booze, drugs and a guarantee he will never settle down. Marti does, however, have a special friend in the shape of Dean (Myles Devonte). Into this melee of characters, a new neighbour (Phoebe Vigor) has moved in upstairs. A woman of mystery – nobody knows for sure what her name is of what she does for a living – Clarine, or is it Zoe soon settles in as a rather eccentric member of the Rupert Street family.

In Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club Jonathan Harvey has created a fascinating world where the lives of five very different people form distinct layers as they interact with each other and the unseen world surrounding them. The first, and possibly most important layer, is the relationship between Shaun and Marti. It takes a while to find out why the two of them fell out, and when we do it’s quite a revelation which is both shocking and, makes perfect sense for the two characters. Their relationship is tempestuous, to say the least, and for much of the play, there seems to be a very thin line separating them from banter and outright war. Then there is George and her relationship with Shaun. I don’t think I’m giving too much away – as it was obvious very quickly – if I mention the words, unrequited love, here. Then there is Marti and Dean and, for that matter, Dean and Shaun to be looked at. Finally, we have Clarine and, let’s be honest, her relationship with life itself. So much going on but, the narrative never seems to busy and the various stories interweave in a naturalistic and sensible way.

Part of this is due to the quality of the acting and everyone in this production is first-rate. Hal Geller’s bitchy queen Marti is the perfect foil to Tom Whittaker’s emotionally charged performance as Shaun, and the scenes of the two of them together just feel right. Some of the conversations really remind me so much of my brothers and me when we get going. Amy Dunn’s school teacher George is nicely observed. George is a sort of wishy-washy character who is probably totally overwhelmed by her students, and who is probably destined to be hurt by every guy she meets. I really loved her matter of fact mention of her stalking techniques with the ex. Myles Devonte looks absolutely stunning when we first see him in the guise of Fifi Trixabelle La Bouche – all credit to designer David Shields – and plays his part sensitively, without resorting to over emotion – except when defending his employer,c something I found quite interesting in the character. Finally, we come to Phoebe Vigor who brings out every facet of Clarine’s multiple personas beautifully. Accent, body movement, even just the eyes, all reflect what part of Clarine’s character is being presented. Director Steven Dexter has a surprisingly large amount of room to play with and with designer David Shields has created an excellent rendition of a glorified bedsit, reminiscent of so many in shared housing in London. The playing area is laid out with the audience on both sides giving a real feeling of intimacy as we observe the goings on in Shaun’s flat.

Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club is a really impressive play overall. There is much humour in the narrative and times when the emotions may get the better of some of us – yes, I may have welled up a couple of times. As a study in relationships, the story itself can’t be faulted and this production, with its first-rate cast, really does deliver a great piece of theatre. One final comment on the story. Thank you, Jonathan, for altering my perception of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ forever, I’ll never forgive you!

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Jonathan Harvey’s gorgeous portrait of cramped London living was widely praised for its heart-wrenching portrayal of two brothers. Marti, 33 and gay; and Shaun, the little brother he practically raised himself until a brutal incident turned them into strangers.

Now they’re reunited, bound by a precarious love for each other and the old camp movies they grew up on. But as a hilarious cast of bonkers neighbours and friends cram into Shaun’s little flat, the temperature rises and old horrors start to simmer and boil.
Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club was first produced in 1995 at the Contact Theatre, Manchester before transferring to the Donmar Warehouse and Criterion Theatre in London’s West End.

Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club by Jonathan Harvey
Director: Steven Dexter
Designer: David Shields
Lighting Designer: Jamie Platt
Casting: Harry Blumenau for Debbie O’Brien Casting
Producer – Peter Bull for Above The Stag Theatre
Cast: Myles Devonte, Amy Dunn, Hal Geller, Phoebe Vigor, Tom Whittaker
Performance Times:
Previews: 19 – 20 October at 7pm and 21 October at 5.30pm

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