Review by Harry Bower
There is something deliciously satisfying about watching rich people live their lives, be it on television, in films, or on-stage. That captivating curiosity is played out at the Royal Court in Mates In Chelsea, a new farcical play written by Rory Mullarkey. In what feels like two distinctive plays in their own right, both acts deliver on frantic laughs garnished with simple plot which, while predictable, should be aneffective vehicle for the author’s social commentary.
Theodore Bungay, or Tug, as he’d prefer to be known, is an insufferably useless thirty-year-old posh lad living in a small apartment in South London, with only his housekeeper Mrs Hanratty, for company. His demanding and gullible fiancé of seven years, Finty Crossbell, pops in occasionally only to be placated by the promise of Tug one day finally finding a photographer available for their forever-pending nuptials. Mrs Hanratty, a communist who opens the piece by singing the Soviet national anthem and sharpening her cake slice, is an avid baker and long-suffering confidant of Tug, having cleaned his bedsheets while he was at Oxford and now writing his frequent apology letters to Finty. Tug’s stereotypically upper-class setting is complete by the appearance of the delightfully absurd and horrifyingly relatable Charlton Thrupp; a sort of Monty Python mash up of Rory Stewart and Boris Johnson. Thrupp is a genius caricature of a modern multi-linguist who spends their time travelling war torn countries and talking in posh cliches while being somehow destined for ‘high office’ despite being completely unqualified…sound familiar?
Suddenly, mummy Bungay arrives and announces she’s selling the family castle to a Russian oligarch to bail Tug out of his smoked salmon spending habit. Almighty chaos unfolds as all three of Tug, Finty and Thrupp impersonate the magnate in an attempt to unapologetically fulfil their own agendas. The farcical nature of the play isn’t revealed in earnest until act two gets going. Once it starts – it’s like a barrel being pushed down a hill, becoming more and more ridiculous and building to a very funny conclusion.
As with all good farces, Mates In Chelsea regularly toes the line between outrageous comedy, and jumping the shark. It mostly avoids the latter by being both relentlessly relatable, and always grounded – mainly by the character of Agrippina, Tug’s mother, played as a somewhat reformed villain. A tiny sense of motherly justice is present throughout which makes the whole thing a bit easier to watch.
Performances throughout are accomplished. Laurie Kynaston as Tug is endearingly naïve and warm, with supreme comic timing and a mischievous glint in his eye which radiates the confidence in his character that all will work out okay in the end, even when it’s blindly obvious that it won’t. Fenella Woolgar is brilliant as Lady Agrippina Bungay – gorgeously sneery when the moment demands it and reluctantly vulnerable in displaying reluctant maternal affection for Tug despite his shortcomings. For me though, the star though is George Fouracres, tackling a challenging wordy roe in Charlton Thrupp and completely stealing the show. In every line delivered, which to be fair is some of the best parody writing in the piece, he has the audience in the palm of his hand. His performance is an instant classic; the characterisation, timing, delivery – all superb.
While a lot of fun and with tonnes of creative merit, the writing falls short of impressive. There were some scenes which felt even too wacky for me, a fan of surreal comedy (usually the weirder the better) – I can’t say which scenes without spoilers. There was an uncomfortably dark throwaway line about the Russian/Ukraine conflict which didn’t go down well at all in the audience, and personally I thought the self-aware audience nods and references to winning theatrical awards were all a bit self-indulgent and unnecessary. The monologue at the end was frankly a bit weird and didn’t have the intended payoff.
Character development is superficial, and the endless metaphor and throwaway puns come across more carry-on, than intelligent and witty. When there’s the opportunity for a deeper critique of the ruling class, this play instead chooses the easy laugh. In itself that’s not a bad thing – it’s fun! But it does leave you asking what the point of it all was, by the end. The predictable nature of the plot doesn’t need to be a problem, but in the end it’s the tail wagging the dog, and the ending felt painfully drawn out.
Mates In Chelsea is a very fun night in the theatre. It never takes itself too seriously, mostly punches up rather than down, though not always, and makes some basic commentary about the upper classes in England and the way our system sacrifices aspirations of the working class for anyone with money. It’s full of good gags, in dialogue or sight with only a handful of groans – but falls short of being anything other than skin-deep in its meaningful criticism. There is something to be said for the way our politics and society has developed in the past ten years or more, in that ridiculous things have become normalised, in a way nobody could have predicted. When we are beyond the pale of parody and our leaders, politicians, and stereotypes of upper class are this much of a joke, satire has to be more egregious and specific than Mates In Chelsea is to be effective.
Mates In Chelsea plays at The Royal Court Theatre until Saturday 16 December 2023. For more information and tickets visit https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/mates-in-chelsea/
Photos by Manuel Harlan