Free, The Loft, Royal National Theatre, London

Business as usual for brittle, beautiful people

Review,Rhoda Koenig
Friday 17 January 2014 05:28
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The characters in Simon Bowen's play may be born free, but everywhere they are in the chains of money, impulse, and that real killer, other people. Alex, a head-hunter, is involved with Sophie, a dizzy temp who is sure she is meant for more creative work. He underwrites her retail therapy, but his own, well-paid job makes him depressed. "Sometimes I just want to" – he makes a dismissive gesture – "and then I want to just... throw it all away." On a drunken binge one night, he does. Kate, who runs her own company, has to hire an actor to play the boyfriend she has had no time to acquire. (In a nice touch, he says, when she suggests an ongoing business relationship, that he'd like some "security". In a clumsy one, her disastrous manner with Sophie – "I think you should own your anger" – turns out to have been inspired by a course in motivating employees.)

Frustrated and inarticulate, Sophie shouts and swears the moment she is crossed. But the characters who have more going for them, including one so rich he describes himself as "post-economic", are also short-tempered and terse. Their dialogue is clipped and often oblique, the details of their milieu pared away. This gives the play an eerie, deracinated quality that lets us accept a string of coincidences more suited to farce: Kate employs Sophie, whose boyfriend, Alex, just happens to have a violent encounter with a stranger, Kate's father; meanwhile, Nick, who employs Alex's friend Ben, returns a parcel Alex has forgotten, its contents so outraging Sophie that she leaves, drinks too much, and winds up at the airport, where she lets off steam to a man who turns out to be... The lack of specificity can, though, be merely confusing. I had to consult the script to discover that one scene took place in a railway station (where it still didn't make a lot of sense) and to find out the name of one of the men – which, mentioned later on, is an important plot point.

Free is a deft, edgy first play, but it's one I feel I've seen before – the withheld information, the characters whose blank exteriors are a thin skin over a well of rage, the helplessness and loneliness masked by drink and sex, the nasty wit. Kate's father apart, everyone is young and pretty. It's a play that made me feel I'd been served a dish of spare, elegant hors d'oeuvres, then sent home without the rest of my dinner.

Thea Sharrock's production, though, is played to perfection, with Nicola Walker, who gives Kate the falsely pleasant, flat tone she substitutes for charm; Andrew Lincoln as Alex, the smoothie whom drink suddenly and shockingly unravels; and Paul Wyett as the creepily sexy actor whom the business of fantasy fits all too well.

To 8 June (020-7452 3000)

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