Hello/Goodbye, Hampstead Theatre, 5th March 2013

Hello Goodbye

I wanted to bring some mess into your life.

Peter Souter is probably best known for the ITV sitcom Married, Single, Other. Hello/Goodbye, his first play for the theatre (he has also written for film and radio) certainly owes much to the form. The play is formed of two acts, and the first, Hello, could be a sitcom’s opening boy-meets-girl episode. In it we are introduced to Juliet and Alex, who, thanks to an estate agent’s mistake, have both managed to rent the same flat. The two do not get off to a good start: attractive city high-flier Juliet has been forced to find somewhere else to live because she slept with her best friend’s husband on their wedding day. Geeky Alex designs album covers for a living and defines himself as an ‘habitual lister, filer and collector’. He has a complete set of every McDonald’s Happy Meal toy ever made. Juliet calls him ‘rain man’.

There is some wonderful and very funny writing in the first act as Juliet and Alex bicker, trade insults and try to ignore the increasing sexual tension. Jo Herbert is great as wild and fiery Juliet, who tries to mask the pain of an unhappy childhood (she shed parents ‘like confetti’) with a healthy dose of self-deprecation and razor-sharp wit. Andy Rush takes a little while to warm up – it sometimes feels as though he’s trying too hard to be awkward – but once into his stride he makes Alex’s idiosyncracies and socially inept behaviour endearing, even though he doesn’t hold back when telling Juliet what he thinks of her (she’s ‘vile’ and ‘a volcanically bad-tempered only child’).

Some of the best illustrations of the differences between these two are not spoken but are made through the use of props. For example, as they start to unpack, Alex removes a large shell from a box, prompting him to recite the Fibonacci sequence, whereas Juliet takes out a pair of pink furry handcuffs! Predictably, the sexual tension between the pair builds and builds and they end up in a steamy embrace. I just wish that Juliet’s clichéd ‘everyone always wants to sleep with me’ had been deleted.

The second act – Goodbye – could be the final episode of any television comedy-drama. Juliet and Alex have divorced – both have new partners – and she has come round to their old flat to sort through the last of their shared possessions. There are some tender moments as they reminisce about where and when they bought various items, and when Alex pulls some bubble wrap out of his pocket as he knows Juliet likes to pop it, but really this act is about pain and regret, and Souter captures the couple’s sadness and bitterness well. Their frustration is palpable as they realise they were both guilty of a lack of communication: Juliet finally voices what hurt her most all along, that she believed Alex loved ‘things’ more than her, when she needed a tangible sign of his love in place of his ‘locked-in syndrome’, and Alex responds by finally opening a chest in which he’s lovingly kept all the old things she threw away.

There are a few weak moments – Rush is not at his best when Alex is supposed to be breathless and lost for words in the middle of a fight, and I’m not sure Juliet is the kind of woman who would say ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph and all the saints’, nor can I quite picture anyone’s muscles looking like ‘knots in spaghetti’ – but Souter still maintains a high level of humour (mostly at the expense of Alex’s naive new girlfriend, who ‘looks like Pixar drew her’) which he now combines with some emotional heft.

The theme of collecting runs through Hello/Goodbye and Souter uses it to ask some important questions, not least when we look back at the accumulated baggage, both physical and emotional, of past relationships and wonder whether it means we just wasted all that time. Hello/Goodbye may be formulaic and predictable (particularly in the last few minutes), but it is also very fast, makes you, on occasion, stop and think, and is really very funny.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

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