Paris Syndrome is a temporary mental illness that affects visitors to the French capital, possibly caused by a place so romanticised in popular culture turning out to be just as real and down-to-earth as anywhere else. It primarily affects Japanese tourists because the “city of love” image is particularly strongly endorsed in Japan so the disappointment is greater, but presumably Americans are also susceptible to this: It would explain why it becomes the obvious setting for Amy Herzog’s Belleville, a play that takes place entirely in an American couple’s apartment. Zack (James Norton) and Abby (Imogen Poots) got married pretty young, most likely too young as Abby wanted her terminally ill mother to make it to her wedding. Since her mother’s death she’s suffered from anxiety and depression, but is now attempting to come off her medication.
Zack recently graduated from medical school, and they’ve moved to Paris so that he can take up a research position with Médecins Sans Frontières. The comic opening scenes show the couple’s relationship as strained but still loving, but there’s obviously a lot going on beneath the surface, and when landlord Alioune (Malachi Kirby) arrives for what appears to be a social visit, once Abby is out of the room we discover Zack is four months behind on the rent. It’s the first major sign that he’s keeping a big secret from his wife, and it starts to shine a light on other inconsistencies in his story. But as he continues to keep the truth from her, Abby also relapses into dangerous and self-harming behaviour, and the real state of their relationship starts to be revealed.
In a way the relationship Herzog has created here is a co-dependent one: Zack keeps certain truths from Abby to protect her mental state, but this eventually turns into a form of control; unbeknownst to her, the move to Paris is Zack’s desperate hope that a place she’s always dreamed of will help her mental state, but of course all it does is make her dependent on him even more, clinging to her phone in case her father, her other usual source of support, should call. Meanwhile Abby’s reliance on Zack partly takes the form of psychological abuse towards him.
Tom Scutt has provided a slightly askew set for Michael Longhurst to create the air of a psychological thriller that culminates in a nightmarish night, when Alioune’s wife Amina (Faith Alabi) accidentally leaves her baby monitor in their flat and a drunk Abby is haunted by a screaming baby she can’t find. The story holds the attention even if much of where it’s going is predictable, and the central couple not particularly sympathetic (which seems deliberate – Alioune and Amina serve largely as a stoical, hard-working counterpoint to Zack and Abby’s self-regarding drama.)
But where the playwright really gets unstuck for me is in the truth about Zack’s deception, which turns out to be on an epic scale that just leaves you wondering how he could have actually managed it for that amount of time*. It’s irritating because there’s no plot requirement for it to be quite as extreme as it is‡ and stretching the story’s logic ends up being one of the main things you’re thinking about at the end. Which is a shame because otherwise Longhurst has made a success of a thriller that at times borders on hysteria, with help from some intense and worryingly plausible performances.
Belleville by Amy Herzog is booking until the 3rd of February at the Donmar Warehouse (returns, klaxon tickets and day seats only.)
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
*SPOILER ALERT: If he only did one year of medical school then, conservatively, he’d have had to be lying about what he was doing for a minimum of three years before their move to Paris. That’s assuming the time he spent on a fictional obstetrics ward was as part of his “course.” If Abby is meant to think he’s fully qualified and has done a residency, you’d have to whack at least another three years on top of that.
‡SPOILER ALERT: If it had turned out he’d been fired a few months earlier, with a couple of other revelations about ways he tried to manipulate the truth into what he thought she wanted it to be, the story could have gone on in pretty much the same direction.