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Natasha Tripney: Vanity projects will do the West End no favours

Jennifer Mudge and Matthew Perry in The End of Longing at Playhouse Theatre, London Jennifer Mudge and Matthew Perry in The End of Longing at Playhouse Theatre, London Photo: Helen Maybanks
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What have we come here for exactly? It’s not, I’d wager, to experience a piece of shiny new writing; it’s more likely a mixture of curiosity and nostalgia, and maybe something murkier, something more voyeuristic. However you want to spin it, the audience at London’s Playhouse Theatre has come for the Matthew Perry show. The posters, even the almost intentionally forgettable title seen to acknowledge this: we’re here to see the one where Chandler wrote a play.

The sitcom Friends was ahead of the game in many ways in anticipating its own legacy. It was savvy about how people watched television at the time, with its recurring jokes, its knowing ‘The one with the something or other’ episode titles and its grasp of what made a good water-cooler moment (which were a thing in the 1990s). Whatever you thought of it, whether or not you found it or its characters endearingly relatable or utterly insufferable, it occupied – and still occupies – a certain cultural space, a place in most people’s memories.

If you’re excited by the idea of a play which explores and explodes this sense of collective memory, then you had better hope that James Fritz’s play Ross and Rachel gets the second life it deserves – because Matthew Perry’s The End of Longing is not that play.

For the first, ooh, twenty seconds or so it’s vaguely promising. Perry’s character announces himself to be an almost gleefully unrepentant alcoholic. This could be fun, I thought, this could be exciting. But fun, and any sense of emotional conviction, turn out to be in very short supply, and though Perry has talked openly about his own alcoholism in the past, there’s also little in the way of real insight here about life as an addict, other than the fact it makes you behave like a bit of jerk.

It operates neither as an intriguing 40-something spin on Friends in which vodka has replaced caffeine as the characters’ vice of choice, nor as a raw confessional exercise. Instead it’s dispiritingly formulaic, choppy and sitcom-like in both structure and setting with key scenes taking place in bars, bedrooms and hospital waiting rooms.

Echoes of Friends infect the whole play like a kind of weird bacteria with superior hair

Of the four characters, one is a sharp-tongued cynic, another his decent-but-dumb best friend. Or at least the play keeps insisting that he’s dumb – we never see any evidence of his idiocy and compared to Perry’s character he seems charming and eminently functional. Their relationship is a work of nuance and delicacy compared to the two female characters, one a prostitute (the high-class glamorous kind, you understand, the right kind of prostitute), the other in the grips of intense baby-hunger (of course she is, she’s 37). Echoes of Friends infect the whole play like a kind of weird bacteria with superior hair, but this never feels entirely intentional or as interesting as it could be if it were.

The End of Longing is also not done any favours by Lindsay Posner’s take-the-money-and-run-very-far-away approach to direction. The characters are frequently made to stand in the middle of the stage and speak at the audience. They don’t seem to have been told what to do with their arms – they look a bit like bollards; some of the scene changes are so abrupt and clunky that it would take an awful lot of slap bass to save them. In Friends, the theatre was always shown to be something to be endured, with Monica and co putting up with Joey’s various stage endeavours out of a sense of duty, and this too feels a bit like a test.

To what end though? Who gains here? Other than the people who stand to make money from it? The argument can be made that productions such as The End of Longing bring a new audience into the West End, that this show will appeal to fans of Friends and of Perry, but the whole thing is so lacklustre that it’s hard to believe it will make anyone come rushing back.

It’s in no way awful. Don’t get me wrong. A couple of the lines fly, albeit not very high. It’s not pins-under-the-fingernails bad. It’s just a bit like a shrug of the shoulders. What’s missing here is any real care or delight in theatre and what it can do. By putting this on a West End stage rather than a smaller studio space, which might at least be more forgiving to both the material and the star, it feels a mite contemptuous. I hesitate to use the term vanity project, but I’m struggling to locate a better one. And while there have been – and no doubt will be – more egregious examples of the form, this doesn’t make The End of Longing any more enjoyable. There’s certainly nothing here that will live in the memory in the same way Friends does.

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