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The Lie review at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London – ‘a slick, soulless comedy’

Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond in The Lie at Menier Chocolate Factory, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond in The Lie at Menier Chocolate Factory, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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“You have to believe me if you want me to believe you.” So says adulterer Paul to his equally faithless wife Alice – and that’s the fragile connective tissue that holds together two marriages in this comedy by the French playwright Florian Zeller.

Zeller has shown that he’s capable of making the commonplace shattering in The Mother and The Father. With 2014’s The Lie, deftly translated by Christopher Hampton, he’s on decidedly less engaging form, replicating the kind of cat’s cradle of erotic mendacity and double-speak that he spun in his earlier play The Truth, but without the fine, razor-wire laceration.

A four-hander of feint and flirtation, denial and deception, it’s slick, cynical and elegant, but mon Dieu, it’s dull. Do you really care whether this well-heeled bourgeois bunch are bedding each other, and which of them knows what? Me neither.

But the machine of Zeller’s boulevardier plotting must whirr on in its bland, archly mirthful way, so we, and his unlikable foursome, are forced to endure the inevitable contrived predicaments. Lindsay Posner’s production is stultifyingly tasteful, and the performances are entirely competent.

Alexander Hanson – substituting in the role of Paul at the 11th hour for James Dreyfus, who pulled out for health reasons – needed a couple of prompts the night I attended, but his ready command of material that depends so heavily for its effect on actorly nuance and timing is impressive. He’s urbane, slippery, and self-regarding, countered by the prim, slightly school-marm sexiness of his real-life spouse Samantha Bond as Alice. As their best friends – and illicit lovers – Alexandra Gilbreath’s Laurence is a shallow, pampered coquette and Tony Gardner’s Michel is an oily creep. You wouldn’t want to have dinner with any of them, let alone sex.

Still, Zeller gathers them at Alice and Paul’s creamy apartment (designed with understated Parisian chic by Anna Fleischle) for a ghastly supper soiree, where tensions are predictably rife. Alice confides to Paul that she saw Michel kissing a strange woman in the street – should they tell Laurence? When is it kinder to lie, and will the truth simply do damage?

Soon Paul and Alice are questioning their own relationship, and they both start spilling secrets, only to insist moments later that they were just teasing and tormenting. Meanwhile Zeller plays similar games with the audience, the feints and fictions of acting adding an extra layer of illusion to the characters’ infidelities.

It’s all rather arid and tediously circuitous – and you’re left feeling merely that these smug, superficial individuals richly deserve one another. The play raises a few glib laughs, but it’s an infinitely dispensable bagatelle, as brittle, flimsy and disappointing as an empty champagne glass.

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Slick, soulless comedy of theatrical and emotional game-playing and marital infidelity among the bourgeoisie