Simon Jenner in West Sussex
9 September 2023
After April De Angelis’ Kerry Jackson at the National last year, another comedy about a bijou restaurant in trouble might seem a coincidence worthy of one of Deborah Frances-White’s Radio 4 shows.
But whereas the De Angelis’ work was a tragedy wildly signalling to be let out, Frances-White’s Never Have I Ever, directed by Emma Butler at Chichester’s Minerva proves the finest new comedy of the year so far.
Not simply because of its coruscating one-liners, that have the audience exploding, but because of its profound, pin-point observations, down to the blink-and-miss way one character, then another, lick their fingers, and why (having it all, coke habit). There’s hesitation over using expensive wine – enjoying a revealing pay-off. And then the outrageous plot.
Frances-White, known for The Guilty Feminist Podcast and the 2019 film Say My Name hasn’t returned to playwriting since she escaped the Jehovah’s Witnesses to Oxford and (before that) work with improv legend the late Keith Johnstone and Patti Stiles, to whom the work is jointly dedicated.
Frances-White makes much of this time; it informs her method here with many actors, and university-bonding drives the plot. But then, inspired by Shaw and Wilde (there’s some Shavian direction-notes too) this is paradoxically the most polished, witty comedy-script I’ve seen recently and it plays seamlessly.
Working-class Jacq (Alex Roach), and anxious partner Kas (Amit Shah) overreached themselves and will have to declare bankruptcy. Awkward since one of their investors, Tobin (Greg Wise) along with wife Adaego (Susan Wokoma) are dropping round for dinner, to celebrate nearly two years of Masada staying open. They’ve all known each other since university and it soon transpires that that is the trouble. Three share a secret the fourth knows nothing of.
So when awkward admissions are made – all fine by Tobin, he never expected his investment back – the evening fuelled with ultra-expensive wine, descends to dares. Specifically the one giving the work its title. ”Never Have I Ever” has one participant declare they’ve never done something, and dead silence on the part of anyone else suggests they have. When this silence proves awkward, disbelief turns to anger and Tobin makes an astonishing proposition.
Everything about this play is first-rate. Wise, as Tobin the multi-layered super-woke ex-mentor to Wokoma’s Adeago, is simultaneously compelling and chilling, both able to prove his liberal credentials and yet at certain moments the habit, not the mask, slips. This is no simple study of a faux-liberal, instead it’s a man partly sincere and painfully faithful, but deluded as to his status: “sustainable hedge-funds” says it all. It’s a status he’s slowly losing; his true beliefs emerge. Which includes his opportunistic seduction of the much younger Adeago when she was 22. As Jacq remembers: “You mentored your way into her knickers.”
Wokoma’s performance sizzles till it explodes, with control and icy finesse. She reveals Adeago as both aware of her status and wrong-footed by Jacq on occasion, but ultimately one whose multiple encounters with racism have been obscured; because even to her friends she’s rich. To her husband, Adeago is a submerged chain-reaction.
Direction notes suggests Jacq might have been a great Mother Superior or MP had not life stunted her. Though not all that is borne out in the writing, Alex Roach makes every assertion, every trade-off tell as she swivels on her tormentors.
Shah’s Kas initially seems the weak peace-maker Tobin sneers at. But not only is it not easy sitting on the fence, Kas reveals, giving one of two quasi-TEDx talks of the evening (Tobin said he voluntarily gave up one for a woman of colour): Kas owns some of the best lines. Not simply about racism thrown at Asian men (one police search held up a stag party for four hours) but the lot of immigrants and cultural assumptions.
Frankie Bradshaw’s excellent restaurant-set has four counters, stools round them with a food preparation station near each where food and bottles await consumption. Underneath the stage poking out are ranks of wine bottles. Four jets of fire occasionally shot out certainly suggest all four characters are playing with it.
Nearly everything about this production is crisp perfection. Ryan Day’s complex lighting furnishes welcome surprises in a space that might have been simply lit. Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s sound is evocative at low levels but too loud as intro-music. Chi-San Howard’s movement shows how seamless two-and-a-half hours on the close Minerva stage can be: not all productions can say as much. There’s thrilling and powerfully disturbing moments in Claire Llewellyn’s fight and intimacy direction. By the end, with a shattering coup, intimacy here can flip to a wrestling-bout. It really should transfer and become a hit. Outstanding.