Rory Mullarkey is one of those playwrights who theatre artistic directors clearly see something in that the rest of us haven’t. Over the last decade he’s notched up multiple Royal Court commissions and one biggie at the National Theatre without ever obviously writing anything particularly good.
That’s a bit harsh. He has boldly visual ideas and a subversive sense of humour. His plays sound great on paper and feel like they should come together into inventive, accessible, relatively mainstream work. But little he’s done has really cohered, and it’s a frustration that his messy new comedy ‘Mates in Chelsea’ marks the final piece of original programming in the Royal Court career of outgoing artistic director Vicky Featherstone.
It centres on Theodore ‘Tug’ Bungie (Laurie Kynaston), an essentially useless member of the landed gentry who lives in a bijou West London flat and spends money like water, safe in the knowledge his that his family has always been wealthy and always will be wealthy, and that his formidable mother Agrippina’s biannual visits to bollock him for his spending are purely rhetorical.
Sadly (or not), it turns out the money really has run out this time, leading Tug, his long-suffering fiancée Finty (Natalie Dew) and his besotted BFF Charlton (George Fouracres) to all head up to the family’s Northumberland pile in a truly outlandish effort to stop it from being flogged off to a Russian oligarch.
When it’s just taking the piss out of the idle rich, Sam Pritchard’s production is on familiar but very solid ground, pleasantly ‘Blackadder’-esque in its amused contempt for the higher orders. The presence of Amy Booth-Steel as Tug’s staunchly Leninist housekeeper Mrs Hanratty is an amusingly sitcom-ish stroke.
But as the story progresses, it never actually seems to come across a point. There’s some fun oligarch dissing – including a delightful joke about the Evening Standard Theatre Awards – but Mullarkey doesn’t actually have anything cogent to say about either the British upper classes or the influence of Russian money on our society. Instead his play just vaguely apes the vibe of a Restoration comedy and apparently takes that as it’s whole raison d’etre.
There are game performances all round, but the largely excellent cast just don’t have the material to work with. With 2010’s ‘Posh’, the Court staged one of the all-time classic modern satires on the entitled young upper classes. ‘Mates in Chelsea’ feels like a toothless shadow of that high watermark, a bankrupt descendent, destined to be forgotten.