Jane Edwardes in west London
13 November 2023
Comedies are rarely seen at the Royal Court, but times are harsh, and artistic director Vicky Featherstone will shortly be leaving, so maybe Rory Mullarkey’s Mates in Chelsea was chosen to cheer us all up as Christmas approaches. If that’s so, the mission is a failure, for there are far too few laughs in a comedy that stays stubbornly earthbound.
Laurie Kynaston as Theodore.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
It’s not that Mullarkey can’t turn out an elegant aphorism. The first act sees the foppish Viscount Theodore Bungay (Laurie Kynaston), or Tug to his friends, lounging around in his Chelsea flat, as he waits for his mother to arrive to deliver a biannual dressing-down. “People being on time is so exhausting,” he whimpers. In the meantime, he sends epic quantities of flowers and biscuits to his disgruntled fiancée of seven years’ standing. This despite the fact that the petulant Tug has little interest in her, and has delayed their marriage for increasingly fatuous reasons.
Mullarkey likes to take the familiar tropes of Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse, and subvert them. Tug is looked after, not by butlers Lane or Jeeves, but by Mrs Hanratty, a communist with a flair for baking, who doesn’t appear to know that Lenin is dead. Instead of Lady Bracknell or Aunt Agatha, we get Agrippina Bungay, Tug’s mother, who gives him the unwelcome news that, because of his extravagance, his beloved Northumberland castle is about to be sold to a Russian oligarch who is heading north the next day. Tug’s presence is required. When he protests that she is betraying their family heritage, she points out that the castle was only acquired because his ancestor was an efficient thug in the time of William the Conqueror.
Then there’s Tug’s eccentric, lovelorn, and immensely rich friend Charlie (George Fouracres), who likes to travel the world, but not before visiting his cultural stylist to equip him with the right outfit. When the news arrives, after Agrippina’s departure, that the oligarch will not be able to make it to Northumberland, Charlie comes up with the idea of impersonating him and scuppering the sale. Fouracres’ fans started laughing the moment he walked on onstage, but it would help if he did a little less preening and a little more work on his character.
The problem is that nothing is really at stake. As even dim Tug realizes, if he does manage to delay the sale, another buyer will soon be found. Despite curiously thinking that the Conservative government is very left-wing, Agrippina is by far the most competent person around, and already has plans to leave for South Korea with her badminton-playing account manager to work for a prestigious badminton academy. It’s a neat spin on the “Anyone for tennis?” of old. As Tug’s mother, Fenella Woolgar has a clarity and precision both of movement and speech that is a joy to watch.
Sam Pritchard’s production doesn’t always serve the play. Some of the staging is clumsy, leaving characters stranded with nothing to do. Sometimes the pace is sluggish, and at others moves at such a cracking pace that it’s almost impossible to follow what people are saying. The sight of three people all impersonating the same Russian oligarch could, at a stretch, be amusing, but an all-round lack of invention means that this is where the evening fall most flat.
Nor is the production always helped by Milla Clarke’s design. Tug’s Chelsea bijou flat seems exactly right with its gigantic painting, spiral staircase, and sofa for Tug to fretfully lounge on. At the castle, however, the greenery is overpowering and the decision to go whole hog on the admittedly spectacular fire leaves Fouracres’ Charlie with an interminable monologue in front of the curtain while the setting is changed behind. The model cake of the castle that Mrs Hanratty (a stoical Amy Booth-Steel) makes to celebrate the sale looks more cardboard than cake-like, as she totters around the stage clutching it in her arms.
So, what apart from their fecklessness, narcissism, selfishness, vanity, greed, laziness, extravagance, and sense of entitlement does Mullarkey have against the upper classes? Mainly, their willingness to sell the country to the highest bidder, especially the Russian oligarchs. It is a failure of government not to curtail money laundering, but it is one that the aristocracy is keen to take advantage of. The point is made by the sight of a Lenin look-alike lounging in Tug’s flat at the beginning of the play before sauntering off. War is unnecessary when the enemy is welcomed into our homes.
It’s an attack, however, that lacks bite. Does Mrs Hanratty’s final sacrifice and liking for Tug, despite everything, reflect our forelock-tugging attitude to this bunch of ne’er-do-wells? Mullarkey has confessed in the Guardian that he himself finds Made in Chelsea irresistible. The one moment of frisson is when the on–off fiancée Finty (Natalie Dew) refers to Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny as “sipping champagne with supposedly left-wing actors at their very own blood-money-funded theatre awards ceremony”. It’s safe to say that Mates in Chelsea won’t be winning an Evening Standard Theatre Award this year. It would be a travesty if it did.