I turned to my companion and said: 'The set designer has done their research – that's what the Priory reception does look like.'
When the curtain went up at The Priory at the Royal Court and I saw the large Gothic stained glass windows and oak panelling of the set, I turned to my companion and said: 'The set designer has done their research – that's what the Priory reception does look like.'
But I was wrong. Although the set will be eerily familiar to anybody who has either checked into the Priory rehab clinic at Roehampton, or been as a visitor – I am in the latter category, I should add – the play is not set at The Priory. Rather the setting is what could be called a 'Priory state of mind' – rehab, career failure, excess, burn out, all the stuff you might expect to find if the play had been set to music and Billy Joel – in his drinking days – had provided the lyrics.
The play takes place in an old priory – an 'isolated country house' according to the Faber text – which Kate, a single thirtysomething writer whose media star – and biological clock – is fading fast, has rented to enjoy a sober and rejuvenating New Year's house party with some of her 'successful' media and arts world pals.
These include her Gay Best Friend, a trendy architect called Daniel, played by Joseph Millson; a glossy magazine travel writer with an iPhone addiction called Adam who shows up with an Essex girl with more outfits than brain cells that he's got engaged to after one night together; and Kate's ex-boyfriend, Carl, a coke-head actor best known for his famous coffee ads.
Highly inconveniently Carl, who dumped Kate after she had a miscarriage, also turns up with his pushy BBC executive wife called Rebecca (acidly played by Rachel Stirling) who is neurotically obsessed with talking about her perfect children. Once the coke comes out, and the Brazilian cocktails start to flow, the play turns into an amusing enough black social comedy about the emptiness and unoriginality of the social and career ambitions of Michael Wynne's 'People Like Me' merry media set generation.
I enjoyed it as a wry and bitter-sweet entertainment out of the Alan Ayckbourn school. And I was delighted to see that the Royal Court, after the success of Enron, which transfers soon to the West End, is now putting on a season of plays that at least deal with subjects (i.e middle class failure) that theatre-goers – especially those who live within three miles of Sloane Square – actually want to see, and can discuss over their truffle tortellini around the corner at Carafinni, rather than the post-feminist and left wing 'cutting-edge' drama that they used to be obsessed by, and which was invariably unspeakably politically correct, dull, and drearily irrelevant.
In fact, almost as an act of atonement for its past, the Royal Court have now become curiously upper and middle class in their preoccupations. In April, happily close to the general election, we will see the opening of 'Posh” by Laura Wade, about a degenerate Oxford dining club clearly modelled on The Bullingdon and no doubt designed to cause maximum embarrassment to old members David Cameron and George Osborne.
Somehow I doubt we will be seeing them in the audience, although with George Osborne, who doesn't take himself as seriously as the media like to think, and probably wouldn't want to miss the chance to see himself – even unflatteringly – portrayed on stage, you never know.
But my gripe with The Priory is that I don't think the playwright Michael Wynne has gone nearly far enough dramatically. He doesn't know his subject well enough; or if he does, he is too afraid to look too closely in the mirror. The play has been billed as The Big Chill meets Agatha Christie, with Michael Billington in the Guardian describing the house party as a 'gang of success-orientated thirtysomethings' but it wasn't nearly dark enough, bleak enough or honest enough.
Middle class failure is a fascinating subject. Surely we don't need another cautionary tale about a bunch of burnt out media coke-heads with expensive luggage – both emotional and physical – who are addicted to their iPhones and broadband, who drink too much on New Year's Eve, try to sleep with with their exes, when not trying to find God, lie about their novels and careers (turns out Kate's new book has been rejected by every publisher in London and Daniel is in charge of door-knob design on his landmark project), worry about their biological clocks, trawl the internet for casual sex and then spend the evening 'hugging' the rent boy who shows up at midnight rather than actually doing it.
I mean there's not even a single divorce – or threat of divorce papers – and it's the Christmas/New Year divorce season for God's sake! Sorry – an engagement is as good as broken off after Hello Girl from Essex accidentally breaks the screen of Adam's iPhone so he can't provide the dance music and can't check his emails.
You call that failure? It's just faux failure. In the final scene, Kate declares: 'We don't have to do anything… When I go back, I'm giving it all up… All the striving for some big thing. Waiting for some future time when I'm going to be happy. Tomorrow, next week, next year. This it it.. This it it. This is it.'
Well, This-Is-It just isn't good enough. Real middle-class failure – make that tragedy – is what the Royal Court should be dealing with. Head on, smashed hearts and lives – not just a broken iPhone screen and a few witty snorts in the toilet. And if Wynne had really done his research he'd have found that this is the one subject today that today's upwardly mobile media and financial classes – not to mention their disillusioned girlfriends and wives – are getting really good at.