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A CurtainUp London London Review
Amongst Friends

Lesbians are psychic. That's why they go off men cos they can read their minds.— Shelley
Amongst Friends
Aiden Gillett as Richard, Helen Baxendale as Lara
(Photo: Robert Day)
Rarely can the title of a play be seen to be tempting providence. Amongst Friends from April de Angelis at Hampstead is a comedy that falls as flat as a roofing slate from the gated tower block in which it is set. I find this distressing because I remember how good I found de Angelis' play Playhouse Creatures and A Laughing Matter set in the 17th and 18th centuries so maybe the moral of this is for Miss de Angelis to stick to the historical.

Some of Miss de Angelis' ideas sound promising but much of her plot is unconvincing. The reunion takes place after several years apart of ex- politician and crime novelist Richard (Aden Gillett) and his journalist and agoraphobic wife Lara (Helen Baxendale) with their old neighbours Caitlin (Emma Cunnliffe) and Joe (James Dreyfus). Richard and Lara have moved into a gated community in a former factory in the middle of a area rife with crime. They are interrupted by the take away food being delivered by underclass mother and drug addict Shelley (Vicki Pepperdine), who at first seems to be something out of a modern version of An Inspector Calls as she relates a tale of her dead son whose name changes with each incarnation. His death can be blamed on each of them but using a different name each time. "Lee" was killed in Basra while serving as a soldier, "Mukerjee" was ill used by Richard, "Donal" was an addict taken in by Caitlin as her lover after meeting at Joe's drugs clinic. All highly implausible but not off the wall enough to be blackly funny. Shelley, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Eastenders' Patsy Palmer, is motivated by extortion for her fake charity.

The acting is fine except that the cast too may have felt a certain desperation with the lack of laughter as the audience listened in stunned silence. Baxendale spends Act One as a hard, orange fake tanned (would she not have gone out to the beauty salon to have had the St Tropez treatment?) gutter press journalist, teetering around on the highest of heels and who dreads the idea of having any visitors let alone leaving the gated area. Richard and Caitlin threaten a brief affair and, in the second act, one member of the cast jumps from the balcony inspiring a curious parade of laying down of tribute flowers and soft toys, in the manner of a shrine for those killed suddenly.

The reconciliation between Richard and his wife in Act Three sees a more relaxed couple as Lara seems much happier but this bliss is now put at risk by the impending publication of Caitlin's tell-all book.

The set, modern glass and high above the ground has a huge backdrop of the lit skyline but like the static comedy the lights do not come on.

We are told in the programme that April de Angelis was commissioned to write a comedy for Hampstead Theatre and Amongst Friends is the result. This set me thinking how difficult it must be to write to order and what a huge obligation is put in place on both sides of the contract but Amongst Friends is simply not audience ready.
Amongst Friends
Written by April de Angelis
Directed by Antony Clarke

Starring: Helen Baxendale, James Dreyfus
With: Emma Cunnliffe, Aiden Gillett, Vicki Pepperdine.
Design: Patrick Connellan
Lighting: Tim Mitchell
Sound/Composer: Edward Lewis
Running time: Two hours with an interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 13th June 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th May 2009 performance at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)

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