THE TRUTH GAME. OR NOT.
Its’ a while since so many shrieks, barks and snorts of laughter shook the seats around me: don’t take your drink in, you’ll risk doing the nose trick in the first two minutes. It may be, given a particularly fine depiction of alpha- male pride and panic by Alexander Hanson, that a bit more of the laughter was – ahem! – female. But there were definite guffaws , sheepish or vengeful recognition from the blokes too. For this is a punch-in-the-guts, cruelly affectionate, whip-smart ninety-minute treat. Seasoned comedy director Lindsay Posner, fresh from the considerably less brilliant The End of Longing, must have thought all his birthdays had come.
The hilarity of the peace – for all its potential bittersweetness – is slightly unexpected, since this is the latest of Christopher Hampton’s fine, subtle translations of plays by the Frenchman Florian Zeller . THE FATHER , which gave Kenneth Cranham a career-crowning hit, did allow some sad laughs but is a portrait – an experience, almost – of dementia. THE MOTHER is about fragile maternal obsession. Both wowed London with odd, brilliantly theatrical dislocations and tricks of perception, a delicate, deliberate sowing of uncertainty which some will call Beckettian (though Zeller is more accessible and less doomy) and others will call Pinteresque (though frankly the Frenchman is better: not as bullying or as pretentious as our Harold).
This play is lighter than the last two we saw, halfway to farce at times though not with farce’s crassness. There are two couples: Michel (Alexander Hanson) is having an affair with his best friend Paul’s wife Alice (Frances O’Connor). This we know for sure, because we first see them in a hotel bed. From then on, however, we are never quite sure in any of the encounters who is lying, who is believing who, which of them is pretending not to know something they do actually know (or do they?) , and who is lying about whether they told another one the truth.
There is Michel’s wife Laurence (Tanya Franks), sleek and unreadable but suddenly seeming open and friendly; , and Robert Portal as Paul deploying an unnerving deadpan. Between them and Alice Michel – the only one whose feelings are made transparent – rattles in increasing unease. Hanson, reddening in the face, at times almost biting the chic white walls, lurches between blustering overconfidence, defensive outrage , and (very French) chop-logic argument about when it’s kinder to lie.
The whole is a virtuoso display of zinging lines, laughingly cruel perceptions about male behaviour (oh, the tennis match!) and emotional handbrake-turns and screeching halts. But, to carry on that metaphor: as in the late Top Gear debacle, all the skids and wheelies are never far from a Cenotaph of real pain: real love, real betrayal. At one point Michel asks “just what sort of a play we are in, comedy or tragedy?” A bit of both. And very classy it is too.
box office 0207 378 1713 to 7 May