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Belleville review at Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘lurid and bloodless’

Imogen Poots and James Norton in Belleville at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Marc Brenner Imogen Poots and James Norton in Belleville at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Blood and screaming babies, drugs and vomit: yep, there’s definitely  something amiss in the boho Parisian domicile of good-looking young Americans Abby and Zack.

US author Amy Herzog’s 2011 play Belleville examines the disintegration of a marriage and the illusions of intimacy through the lens of a lurid Hollywood thriller. There are plot twists, far-fetched revelations and sinister secrets. A huge kitchen knife is brandished about with ominous frequency.

Michael Longhurst’s meticulous production is acted with pungent precision and the dialogue often has verve, yet the play feels insubstantial – a domestic drama with a flash of Grand Guignol, tough to believe in, tougher to care about.

It doesn’t help that, despite fine performances, Zack (James Norton) and Abby (Imogen Poots) are an irksome pair. She – a failed actor who now teaches yoga – is self-obsessed, passive-aggressive and snarky. He – a research medic in pediatric Aids – tends to her with a solicitude that’s disconcertingly controlling. Still, together they’re kind of cutesy: they call each other “homie”. It’s immediately apparent that there is murkiness between them when Abby comes home unexpectedly one mid-December afternoon and finds Zack, who should be at work, masturbating to internet porn.

A visit from their Senegalese landlord Alioune (Malachi Kirby) reveals that, unbeknownst to Abby, they’re also behind with the rent. She, meanwhile, is obsessively interested in her sister’s pregnancy back home, and has suffered, since her mother’s death from cancer, from depressive illness. She’s off her anti-depressants, but popping valium, while Zack sucks hungrily on a marijuana pipe behind her back; a boozy date night gets very messy.

The design is exquisitely detailed, from Tom Scutt’s authentically shabby-chic apartment set, snow falling prettily outside its windows, to the sound design by Ben and Max Ringham, which gives every retch, thump or smash in the kitchen or bathroom disturbing significance. The crying infant we hear is the child of Alioune and his wife Amina (Faith Alabi), who live below. Coupled with the constant threat of violence, it lends the narrative a faintly Polanski-ish unease, and begs the question of who the real grown-ups are: they’re all in their twenties, but Alioune and Amina are solvent, industrious and raising a family, while Zack and Abby are spoilt, immature and flailing. The worm in the bud of romance wriggles here, too: how well do we ever know each other, however much we believe we’re in love?

Yet none of it is very original, and having reached a hysterical pitch, the action is rather abruptly cut off and abandoned. Norton and Poots execute the steps of the familiar dance of deception, double bluff and crack-up with skill and conviction – both are queasily absorbing. But they’re more than this dull-edged psychodrama deserves.

Michael Longhurst: ‘I love working with designers. I have a very strong visual sense’

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Superbly acted and impeccable staged production of a lurid and bloodless domestic psychological thriller