Jonathan Harvey’s break out play Beautiful Thing, first performed 25 years ago, showcased his keen ear for naturalistic dialogue.
Originally commissioned for the National, his 1995 play Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club is a reminder of his ability to write incisive, sympathetic dialogue though the subject matter is far darker.
Shaun is falling apart while his girlfriend is away though he’s just about holding it together with the help of his older brother Marti. It’s a prickly relationship, as Marti is battling his own demons and things are not helped by the neighbours, an interfering, if well-meaning bunch.
Harvey conveys the brothers dysfunctional co-dependency with a remarkably light touch, aided by the witty rapport between Hal Geller, as the acerbic Marti, and Tom Whittaker, making a promising debut, as Shaun.
In order to make the play work director Steven Dexter needs to balance Harvey’s free flowing humour and the undercurrent of depression, mental-illness and loneliness that gives the play its edge.
There are many plates that need to be spun, and Dexter balances the natural humour provided by Amy Dunn’s needy George with the unpredictable nature of Phoebe Vigor’s troubled Clarine. He finds the truth in all these oddball characters, and in doing so amplifies the emotional weight of the final scene.
There are similarities to Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and these are echoed in David Shields’ detailed, claustrophobic traverse set that makes the audience feel part of the vegetarian dinner party from hell. A more accurate parallel however might be found in Ayckbourn’s early work, where he detailed the condition of the middle classes with as much care, love and understanding as Harvey does with his working class characters.