Friday, 4 October 2013

Theatre review: The Empty Quarter

Greg and Holly moved to Dubai as a result of a vague romantic attraction of Holly's to the desert. In fact when we first meet them, Holly (Jodie McNee) is recovering from wandering off out into it and getting lost. Greg (Gunnar Cauthery) hasn't taken to the place and, concerned about his wife's health as she continues to be fascinated by the desert that nearly killed her, quits his job in the hope that it'll shock her into returning to the UK with him. But he's reckoned without the draconian local laws against getting into debt. One missed mortgage payment later and he's in a Middle Eastern prison, and the only way out is a loan from the closest thing they have to friends out there, an older English couple. And a business deal with Gemma (Geraldine Alexander) and Patrick (David Hounslow) ends up looking more like a Faustian pact when the two couples become the only constant in each other's lives.

Alexandra Wood's The Empty Quarter explores the dark side of a place best known as a millionaires' playground but which - at least up until a few years ago, when the play's action starts - represented somewhere even the average person could live a life of luxury if they were willing to leave their home behind. But in the crucial character of Gemma we also see into the empty world of an ex-pat who has no long-term friends where she lives, and is driven a bit crazy by it.


There were things about this setup that felt very familiar to my childhood in Greece, although mercifully the similarities only go so far: Fortunately my mum integrated well and had Greek friends too, but as an Englishwoman abroad her British friends were ex-pats who would sometimes move back home, never to be seen again (all my pets growing up were inherited from people who left the country and couldn't take them with them.) So I didn't find it too hard to imagine things one step further, and see this couple who've lived in Dubai for 20 years when most people stay for about five. Starved of long-term friendships, Gemma becomes acutely aware that the friends they see several times a week now will be all but forgotten in a couple of years' time. Hence Patrick's unusual clause for the loan, that Greg must work for him until it's paid off, keeping the younger couple in Dubai with them for 15 years.


Alexander is pretty spectacular as Gemma, starting out very funny as the hilariously self-involved lady of leisure interested only in shopping and workouts, but gradually turning up the dial on the panicked desperation of a woman for whom those are actually the only human interaction available outside the house. (Helen Goddard's set is of both couples' flats, often described as so similar and impersonal they could be hotel rooms, blending into one another.) She's so emotionally invested in the Filipino cleaning lady she can barely communicate with, that when the financial downturn means Patrick has to let her go, Gemma goes completely off the rails - even more so when the childless woman discovers Holly is pregnant, and her obsession starts to look dangerous.


McNee meanwhile manages to convey a different flavour of panic to Holly, one that also develops as the years go on. Greg, meanwhile, is the character with the least affinity for their surroundings (a nice little casting touch of director Anna Ledwich's to bring in such a pale, Scandinavian-looking actor to plonk into the middle of the desert) but ends up the most able to see the positive side and settle in to his new situation - perhaps having spent time in a real prison he's less likely to view being trapped with the older couple as one. And there's nothing wrong with a production that makes Gunnar Cauthery strip to his boxers. This is interesting stuff - funny at times, often dark and claustrophobic as well.

The Empty Quarter by Alexandra Wood is booking until the 26th of October at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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