REVIEW: The Priory, Royal Court, November 25 2009

By: Nov. 27, 2009

Michael Wynne's latest play takes a topic most of us are all too familiar with - the trauma of New Year's Eve - as well as a bunch of well-observed characters and draws a funny, if confused, couple of hours from the premise. Set in a big old house in the middle of nowhere, six old 'friends' come together to celebrate, but as the night continues, secrets and tempers unravel and the air becomes ever more fraught.

Variously starring Rupert Penry-Jones as washed up actor Carl, the rather lovely Joseph Millson as gay architect Daniel and Jessica Hynes in a rather Norman Conquests-esque turn as writer Kate, who booked the house back in the spring when still with boyfriend Matthew, Wynne takes a sharp, clever look at the way pretentious, middle-class professionals behave and speak.

The writing sparkled, as did the acting - there isn't a weak link in this group. Millson came off best as sympathetic, lonely Daniel, whose dalliance with Adam (an under-used Nick Blood) ends in disaster when he only wants to hug and talk, rather than screw around. Penry-Jones, too, was a lot of fun, particularly in his interactions with snobby wife Rebecca (a sparky Rachael Stirling). Alistair McKenzie's turn as Ben, the travel writer who can't live without his iPhone (whoever thought an iPhone would become a crucial plot point in a play?), was really very funny, while Charlotte Riley as new girlfriend Laura sparkled, particularly when telling Daniel about her appreciation of "the gays". Riley is clearly an actress with range - her portrayal of Laura's breakdown in Act 2 elicited an en-masse gasp from the audience and immediate silence. While Laura's actions seemed out of nowhere at the time, thinking back, her behaviour clearly foreshadowed an eventual loss of control.

The problem with The Priory is that Wynne doesn't really seem to know what he wants his play to be. It's very funny, but it's not quite farce and it's unclear as to whether the thriller aspects (Laura keeps spotting a hooded man at the window) are meant to be hinting at a darker purpose or simply there to make the audience laugh. There are a fair few moments of dark drama as relationships fray, not all of which fit in with the general hilarity overshadowing most of the production, particularly towards the end. While it's an interesting character study and is well-written, it's also immensely frustrating, because you struggle to see the point Wynne is trying to make. Perhaps there isn't one. Perhaps that's the point?

The Priory will date very quickly, so see it while it and the topics it talks about are hot.