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Birthday Suit review at Old Red Lion, London – ‘mercilessly tense’

EJ Martin and Liam Bewley in Birthday Suit at Old Red Lion, London
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This contemporary drawing room comedy by David K Barnes might not break new ground but it is a properly funny. Birthday Suit is a mercilessly tense piece of writing that clashes Noel Coward with Edward Albee to quite profound effect.

Richard is turning 40, he invites all his colleagues to his flat but only Diane and her boyfriend Nick show up. Oh, and Richard’s wife who happens to be Nick’s ex. They drink until, drunk, they can face up to the kinks in their respective relationships.

Liam Bewley’s performance as birthday boy Richard dominates. Richard lacks charisma, he’s the butt of jokes, which is why no one has come to his party. And Bewley captures it to a tee: every line is capped with a chuckle as he rocks on his heels, eyes closed, nervous grin plastered to his face. He exudes tragedy. Bewley makes him endearing and irritating in almost equal measure, and he elevates this production.

That is until Valerie comes along, Richard’s tempestuous wife. Emily Stride is a ferocious presence, injecting a coldness and honesty into the play. The way she conceals her damage behind glamour is like something from a Coward play but cut to contemporary dimensions.

Amid Alice Malin’s deliberately static direction – the cast stand straight backed and stiff, ossified by the awkwardness of this guestless party – Stride brings motion and dynamism. She slouches and squirms and, effortlessly, controls the room. Among these other three characters obeying social norms, she brings unpredictability.

The kicker is the way Barnes channels sympathy towards Richard. He doesn’t know when he’s being made fun of, which is almost all the time. It starts as comedy, but the laughter turns in on itself: it’s no longer the audience laughing at Richard. Instead, the other three characters laugh at him and it feels palpably cruel. So the old-hat setting hardly matters when the writing is this taut and the performances so finely honed.

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Comedy turns inexorably in to tragedy in David K Barnes’s tense, sharp play