Saturday 24th January 2015, evening
We’re not normally great fans of rom-com, but finding out that Shaun Evans and Miranda Raison were going to team up at the Hampstead Theatre in ‘Hello/Goodbye’, Peter Souter’s play about the first and last moments of a relationship, we were intrigued enough to go – we’d been disappointed to miss Shaun Evans in a recent production of ‘Miss Julie’ at the Chichester Festival Theatre so maybe this would be the next best thing (and probably less grim).
Although technically this play has a cast of four (Luke Neal and Bathsheba Piepe providing some key moments of support), it feels very much like a two-hander. Alex and Juliet both turn up in the same flat at the same time, insisting it is theirs, and a battle of wills (and almost everything else) ensues.
There is a lot of well observed comedy in the play – the second act argument about how to get the best out of the central heating is priceless – the exasperated rehearsal of well-worn arguments and attempts at logic which are bound to fall on deaf ears will be recognisable to many. The perfect storm of Alex’s passive aggression and Juliet’s borderline sociopathy is nicely played out and enjoyably painful to watch at times, as they must even argue about whether or not to have an argument. When Juliet professes not to want any of their ‘joint’ things, and then fights tooth and nail when she realises she might be missing out, we know we are on familiar territory.
The problem with ‘Hello/Goodbye’, however, is that the play just can’t commit itself. There is not enough substance to provide a meaty drama we can get our teeth into, and there is not a steady enough supply of comedy to counteract the lack of plot. Ultimately the characters are unlikeable and once we get over the delight at the sheer audacity of Juliet’s behaviour, it becomes hard to care about what happens to her. The dialogue starts to feel as though it could be from a sketch show. The sexual tension, too, is somewhat laboured – the actors could probably have benefited from fewer heavily signposted references to heat, sweat and the removal of clothing and perhaps director Tamara Harvey could have allowed them to develop the relationship a little more subtly. It is hard to work out what is missing, but it may be that the dominance of exposition over real-time drama doesn’t help, along with a plot that tries to go to dark places but feels ultimately sanitised.
Miranda Raison is an excellent comedienne, with a wonderfully spikey, disingenuous manner and snappy comic timing, and Shaun Evans is the perfect foil as the introverted completist Alex, with a very nice line in deadpan delivery. Evans did feel underused though – he never seems to get his share of the emotional action, and it’s very difficult to shine for two hours playing the ‘strong silent type’.
We noticed afterwards that this play has already had an outing downstairs at the Hampstead, with a different cast. Perhaps that small and intimate space would have served the play better, because the rather bizarre attempts to turn the Hampstead main stage into a ’round’ space didn’t quite work for us. The space has never felt bigger, and for us, looking down on the action from the back row of the circle, it was hard to feel involved. We would argue that sitting almost behind the back of the set qualifies as restricted view, not to mention having to wait until the curtain call to get a look at Luke Neal’s face! We can’t help feeling that the Hampstead Theatre is getting too safe in its choices – there’s nothing wrong with the occasionally fluffy piece of pure entertainment (although in this case we’d need a few more belly laughs for it to qualify as that) but we can’t quite see where the Arts Council subsidy fits in. Surely the people of Hampstead and St John’s Wood would like to be challenged once in a while?