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The Poetry of Exile review at White Bear Theatre, London – ‘brilliantly performed’

The cast of The Poetry of Exile at White Bear Theatre, London. Photo: Adam Bennett
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Rob is a driving instructor who wants to be a poet. Greg is his brother-in-law boss who wants Rob’s wife, Lynn. Lynn wants children but Rob isn’t playing ball(s). Greg’s bored wife Josie wants to run a vineyard in France, though this much-declared ambition of hers is more of an upwardly mobile front for her deep-set alcoholism. They all live in Romford.

Each character’s dream – or alternative identity – looks unlikely to be achieved, until Josie, in a fit of Cotes du Rhone-induced pique, encourages Greg and Lynn to rush upstairs and get baby-making, adultery-style.

If the consequences are predictable, that would not be indicative of Peter Hamilton’s absurdist comedy. Like Rob, whose journey from inept instructor to philosophising “eighth-century Chinese wilderness poet” sees him becoming increasingly unbalanced and liable to pontificate, so the play moves from a taut, hilarious comedy in its first half to a meandering and self-absorbed final act.

The performances, though, are consistently superb. Charles Sandford, as basin-haired, bespectacled Rob, gives a note-perfect and sympathetic performance of a withdrawn, quirky dweeb, with his patient, John Major-esque delivery and lanky physicality. Having just learned from a sperm test that he’s unable to have children, his reaction to an ecstatic Lynn’s incriminating news that she’s pregnant – “I’m devastated with joy” – is a masterclass in how to do funny-sad.

All the more disappointing, then, when Hamilton’s preoccupation with Rob’s high falutin lyricism tips the play into a jarring portentousness and the hitherto-involving narrative comes to a dead end.

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Brilliantly performed, sympathetic character comedy disappointingly morphs into an overblown final-act thesis