Parlour song, Almeida Theatre, London

Sex and Scrabble in suburbia

Michael Coveney
Tuesday 16 July 2013 23:01

It will be a vintage year if we see a better-acted new play than this from Jez Butterworth, his fourth stage piece since his 1995 breakthrough with Mojo (later filmed with Harold Pinter). And there's a touch of Pinter in the night in this funny, sinister three-hander of a suburban showdown on the edge of a dark forest.

Andrew Lincoln, who plays Dale, a small-time car-wash magnate far removed from his slacker Egg in This Life, is a half-in, half-out narrator who recounts what happens with his next-door neighbours, demolition expert Ned (Toby Jones) and his lustrous, dissatisfied wife Joy (Amanda Drew).

Objects keep disappearing from Ned's house, he thinks, starting small with the cufflinks he wore to a wedding in Gants Hill, growing larger with the fishing rods, lawn-mower and tandem bicycle. It's been a hot summer and Joy has cut her finger slicing lemons for a fruit crush. Before you can say "pass the sticking plaster" she's playing sexy Scrabble in bed with Dale.

There's been a barbecue and Ned is always away in a Travelodge on the outer London ring, though his idea of entertainment is to show home movies of his destructive exploits in Leeds, Aberdeen or Kilmarnock. His next big demolition project is the local Arndale centre.

Whereas a play such as Pinter's Old Times shows a man drifting in hallucinatory reminiscence between his wife and her best woman friend, Joy floats enigmatically, then sensuously, between her husband and Dale, who has a kind of best-buddy relationship with the neighbour he cuckolds.

Ned's crisis is major mid-life, and Dale advocates action. The advice yields two blissfully funny solo scenes for Toby Jones: first, practising an oral sex routine listening to headphones and flicking his tongue around like a lascivious goldfish; and second, exercising beyond his capacity in a series of stretches and squeaky head-jerks before wrestling with weights he can lift but not lower.

Jones's Ned is squidgy and squat with a belly and breasts, but Lincoln's Dale is a lithe, athletic predator of the garage forecourt, recounting how he met his wife when she drove in for a wash and rub-down and eyed him in the mirror; the speech cuts to Joy's approach over the garden fence.

Ian Rickson's beautifully measured production allows a sense of panic to push into the domestic scenes, played in a translucent, revolving design by Jeremy Herbert, with poetic lighting by Peter Mumford and spooky music by Stephen Warbeck. When the play was first seen in another production in New York last year, critics mentioned John Cheever and John Updike.

There's certainly a similar sense of suburban unease and foreboding. But the characters and the society they come from seem utterly British, products of the post-war urban sprawl that has trampled on nature and perhaps left room for a pantheistic surge of inexplicable revenge.

To 9 May (020-7359 4404;

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