BWW Review: VALUED FRIENDS, Rose Theatre
Our national obsession with property prices has a long history. Back in 1989, Stephen Jeffreys targeted the seismic social and financial changes of the decade with his play Valued Friends. A caustic commentary on Thatcher's Britain and the explosion of property prices, it was a hit when it premiered in 1989 at the Hampstead Theatre and earned Jeffreys Most Promising Playwright awards from both the Critics' Circle and Evening Standard.
Michael Fentiman's brand new production at Kingston's Rose Theatre is the first revival of the play in thirty years and bristles with nostalgia, yet lacks real substance.
Focusing on four friends renting a run-down flat in London, the play follows the group as they negotiate their lives, loyalties and friendship in London's newly ferocious property market. By doggedly holding onto their tenancy, they are able to extract a highly profitable deal to purchase the flat from their landlord, as the area they live in becomes increasingly gentrified.
Natalie Casey is an unbridled tornado of energy as Sherry; an aspiring comedian, irresponsible and so flighty with money that it is impossible for her to contribute to the eventual purchase of the flat. Casey is the real heart and soul of the play; almost exhausting to watch, she is the character with whom the audience really engage.
Catrin Stewart is rather cold as Marion, wanting to grow up, have a baby and buy a place to live. Marion's sometime boyfriend Paul is played by Sam Frenchum, a music critic who becomes increasingly obsessed with home improvements. Frenchum is convincing in the role and embraces the contradictory elements of the character. On one hand he feels a grasping need for continuity in his life when everything is changing around him, but is also swept away by the excitement of making so much money from property.
Michael Marcus plays Howard, an earnest writer, relieved to have escaped the manual toil of his parent's lives in Glasgow. He has some amusing lines, but overall is given little to do. Ralph Davis has great fun as the smooth-talking and bombastic landlord Scott and Nicolas Tennant also puts in a very funny turn as Stuart, the philosophical and rather poetic labourer who Paul brings in to help him with the renovations.
Despite being a play about property, this is also a play about manipulation; the housemates manipulate their landlord and also turn on Sherry, who decides to take the money and run rather than invest with the others.
It is impossible for most millennials to imagine a scenario where they could purchase a property, let alone in central London and so this play is very much of its time. This is a point in our history where people, particularly in the capital, began to become obsessed with property and the accumulation of money. Writer Jeffreys has captured a time of huge social and economic change where greed is good, even if it leaves you emotionally empty.
The main issue with the play is that the relationships are just not convincing enough. The sub-plot of the on-off relationship between Paul and Marion is not believable and feels dragged out to the end of the play. It is also not clear where Howard fits within the play, except to make a few pithy observations about the dangers of capitalism. With the exception of Sherry, there is no real heart to this production.
There is great attention to period detail from Michael Taylor's set design and Madeleine Girling's costumes. The grotty flat gradually becomes a slick space with a sparkling white leather sofa and shiny chrome coffee table and lamp. There is a also proliferation of high-waisted stonewashed jeans, pussy bow blouses and one-shoulder tops. The soundtrack of 80s hits from The Boomtown Rats and Dire Straits is excellent and feels as though it could have been extended to reflect the decade even further.
The production will not make a huge impression on you, but is a pleasant, and occasionally very funny, way to spend the evening.
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith