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The Truth review at Menier Chocolate Factory, London – ‘cuts deep’

Alexander Hanson and Frances O'Connor in The Truth at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Tristram Kenton Alexander Hanson and Frances O'Connor in The Truth at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Florian Zeller seems to have picked up where mid-1990s playwright Yasmina Reza left off: a craftsman of short French comedies of poise, polish and bad social manners, in both cases employing the same English translator, Christopher Hampton, to turn them into nuanced portraits of people in alternately comic and serious states of distress.

Reza’s run of West End successes – including Art and God of Carnage, The Unexpected Man and Lifex3 – are now being matched by the even faster discovery in London over the last 18 months of Zeller’s Parisian repertoire. Beginning with The Father and then matched by The Mother, this run now continues with The Truth – and which also has its corollary in The Lie, yet to be produced here.

Zeller delicately and dazzlingly interlaces the stories of two couples, and the two parties in them who are cheating on their spouses. Michel and Paul are avowedly best friends who occasionally play tennis with each other, but Michel is harbouring a darker secret from his newly unemployed friend: he’s also having an affair with Paul’s wife Alice.

As with the The Father and The Mother The Truth plays constantly shifting games with the audience’s perspective, though here the actors play the same characters throughout, telling different versions of their stories to each other constantly, proving their fundamental unknowability and demonstrating how, if you are telling lies yourself, you can’t depend on others to be truthful either. The play is a study in betrayals, but also hypocrisy.

This constantly shifting ground recalls Harold Pinter’s own simmering, brutal exposure of the liabilities of lost friendships over sexual dalliances in his often-revived 1978 masterpiece Betrayal. But Zeller’s play exposes and explodes the characters’ personal hypocrisies.

Lindsay Posner’s sophisticated production – with Lizzie Clachan’s elegant designs shifting between different locations – is acted with both churning tension and great feeling. Alex Hanson may have a tendency to overdo the twitchy moue of his mouth, but he also conveys a genuine sense of stricken panic as a man cheating on both his wife and best friend, while Frances O’Connor, as the mistress, and Tanya Franks as his wife, clearly show that they are neither victims or pushovers to his desires. Best of all is Robert Portal, as his friend who – as in Betrayal – knows exactly what’s happening right underneath his nose, but is clearly playing a longer game.

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Playful, poignant infidelity drama that cuts surprisingly deep