Monday 20 November 2023

Theatre review: Mates in Chelsea

The fact that the Royal Court, still probably best known for popularising kitchen sink plays and retaining a reputation as a political powerhouse, is based at the heart of Sloane Square has always been a bit of a contradiction, and one the venue has occasionally played on. The latest variation on the theme is also an attempt to link the location to the scripted reality show Made in Chelsea - "The Poshos," as my sister calls it - and the obliviously privileged characters people are familiar with from TV. Rory Mullarkey's Mates in Chelsea puts modern-day aristocrats in a P.G. Wodehouse-inspired farce in which Tug Bungay (Laurie Kynaston) lives a louche life in his Chelsea flat, looked after by his grumpy Leninist housekeeper Mrs Hanratty (Amy Booth-Steel,) whom he keeps around mainly because a wise-cracking Jeeves type suits the image of himself he likes to project.

His life is mainly made up of elaborate apologies for whatever latest offence he's caused his fiancée of 7 years, Finty (Natalie Dew,) but the cost of all those flowers on top of the partying has depleted his accounts more than he realises.

When his mother Lady Agrippina (Fenella Woolgar) makes a rare visit, it's to announce that the only way for him to avoid bankruptcy is to sell the family's castle, a place he's very emotionally attached to - mainly as somewhere to hide from Finty. A sale has been arranged to Russian oligarch Oleg Govorov, and everyone has to travel to the castle the next day to finalise the deal. Inspired by his friend Charlie, Tug decides to go to the castle disguised as the Russian, and scupper the deal.

But with Finty and Charlie having the same idea, and the real oligarch (Philipp Mogilnitskiy) also turning up, the results are... well, even if the prospect of four Govorovs turning up at once doesn't seem that promising a premise for a 21st century comedy, the end result still manages to disappoint. Mullarkey's overlong comedy seems to trip itself up at every turn, and between the flat jokes, setups that lead nowhere (Karina Fernandez as Agrippina's financial consultant / lover has a complete dead end of a plotline to contend with) and tiny current affairs references that feel overtly like a concession to the kind of venue it's playing in, I'd say the cast struggle against the material but that would suggest there's any fight left in them.

The one genius stroke of Sam Pritchard's production is poaching George Fouracres from the Globe to play the ridiculous Charlie, and whether he's pining over his best friend, travelling the world in offensive, culturally appropriating disguises, or giving a stream-of-consciousness account of the fictional Govorov's childhood, it's painfully obvious that the laughs that accompany his scenes are missing when he's offstage. (Given how much the rest of the cast corpse around him you've also got to wonder how much he's ad-libbing.)

The latter speech, used to cover up one of Milla Clarke's substantial set changes, is probably the highlight of the evening, but then that says a lot in itself - in an elaborate and farcical comedy, it doesn't say much about the rest of the script if the best you can do is stick an actual comedian on stage for a few minutes to riff on a surreal story. Sadly this segues into a final act that continues to long outstay its welcome. For a theatre to stage something so far outside its usual style you'd imagine they'd hit on a real gem, so when it turns out to be far from that it's as inexplicable as it is disappointing.

Mates in Chelsea by Rory Mullarkey is booking until the 16th of December at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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