What’s going on? Who are the people in the next flat, why are they so friendly and yet so odd? Are they commonplace swingers, murderers, or a delusion brought on by grief, solitude and thwarted sexual need? Or are they – gulp – actually dead all the time? Why is their adult son Francois covered in scars and prone to Tourettish shouting? For a few seconds you think it’s overacting, but no: this is Dyfan Dwyfor, seasoned chap, very good as Yuri Gagarin five years ago; and the director is Sir Michael Boyd, no less. So it’s Francois who’s deliberately made so odd. Good grief, odder still in twenty minutes’ time.

Though hang on, there’s oddity everywhere: is it perhaps possible that the only character who is actually real is LIndsey’ Campbell’s tormented, confused Alice, adrift in a hideous wonderland of white-rabbit husband Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) and the intrusive neighbours. Oh, and where is the crying baby, if that is what it is? And where did the props people source a squeaky rubber duck with such a worrying timbre? Not to mention the fifth and final member of the cast, of whom we shall not speak for fear of spoilers…


The head spins, pleasantly, and the heart stirs with unexpected shafts of proper pain. New Francophone playwrights in translation are invading our theatre scene, and very welcome too. A sharp fresh playfulness emerges , not Genet-style sadism or glum existential solemnities, but a sort of skewed naturalism which uses the fact of live theatre itself to explore the perilous shores of familiar emotion . And, quite frankly, mess with your head. We have just had Florian Zeller making us experience the edges of dementia in THE FATHER and maternal need and delusion in THE MOTHER, before twisting around into the brilliant near-farce of THE TRUTH. And now here is Catherine-Anne Toupin, another French-speaker (though in Québec) , elegantly translated by Chris Campbell of the Royal Court.

On the face of it, here’s a standard urban fiction setup: a weird-people-in the next apartment story. LIke Rosemary’s Baby, The Ones Below, or half a dozen comedies. But from the first moments it deploys a particular unease that theatre is good at showing: it is clear that Alice is depressed or distressed, not sleeping, and her husband Ben, a young doctor, worn out by her crisis. Which has something to do with the – possibly non-existent, or lost – offstage baby. Which in a fleeting moment later, you think Alice may have killed. Or not. But one of the three members of the neighbour family – whose apartment, with metaphorical symmetry is said to be “the same but the other way round” – may also have done a dark thing, long ago. Or not.


I would hate you to think it is doomy. Apart from the crazed Francois, the parents are at times and at first, pure comedy : Guy Williams as an urbane, whimsically sociable Gilles, once-famous author of a (probably psychology) text, and Maureen Beattie going for broke, Abigail’s-Party style, as an overbearingly friendly Juliette with Morticia Addams pageboy hair, ferocious maternal authority, and a sequence involving unseen underwear. Which had the whole theatre focusing, in shock, at her white knees in case she fulfilled the threat to part them.


So on it goes: the tone sometimes erotic, sometimes comic or banal then suddenly inappropriate. At one point (when Dwyfor goes really nuts) quite violent. And at last, the point of the mirror-image flat metaphor is reached in a surreally and really frightening conclusion. Another metaphor hovers then, of the behaviour of parent cuckoos towards weaker birds. And again Lindsey Campbell’s delicately drawn Alice makes your heart turn over in horrified empathy. What is real, what ever has been, was it all a nightmare, how deeply can birth or the lack of it destabilize a woman? Creepy, rather brilliant. Power to the Bush, Traverse and Ustinov for bringing this to us. I have little hope for quiet dreams tonight.


box office 020 8743 5050 to 12 April
rating four   4 Meece Rating


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