Student writing is difficult to pull off well. Selling tickets is a hard job even without the play being completely unknown and there can understandably be scepticism around inexperienced playwrights – but ‘New Town’ and the smiles it gave to a full Barron theatre was a wonderful advert for overcoming these difficulties. A warm and funny play that left a smile, it made for a lovely evening out, even if it perhaps didn’t leave a lasting impression.
In a middle-class Edinburgh flat our central couple – Piers and Michael, played by Ben Hood and Matthew Gray respectively – invite another couple over for ‘not-quite-an-orgy’ in an attempt to save their drooping marriage. Through a mixture of Piers’ narration and smartly choreographed action we are led through an evening packed with affairs, thongs, viagra, and an interrupting sister. Whilst this seems like the set up for a bawdy sex farce (a neat reference to Noel Coward in the script cheerfully winks at its baser tendencies) the play instead takes a gentler tone, becoming more a familial drama lit up by dialogue which is at times paper-cut sharp and a beautifully streamlined structure that pulls you along at a rate of knots.
There are snags; a running thread about Josef Mengele is jarring and a metaphor around ‘The Singing Butler’ by Vettriano is laboured, but more fundamentally the play doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to do. All the characters (with the possible exception of Daniel Heidland’s Antony) are moneyed bourgeois intelligentsia who delight in coming up with witty remarks about art and talking about themselves, so we seem to be firmly in the territory of satires like God of Carnage which rips into ‘cultured’ life with gleeful abandon. But New Town does not seem to be particularly interested in doing this. Instead, for every moment it bursts the bubble of middle-class manners there is another where it falls into the very habits it is laughing at. Piers’ narration seems taken straight from a Woody Allen voiceover, the wording of even the sincere moments slips occasionally into needless verbosity – ‘clever’ should not be a derogatory word but sometimes simplicity is a virtue. This, then, is a satire that doesn’t skewer the middle class; it gently pokes them with a stick before giving them a hug to say sorry. This may be more my problem than the play’s though; it could just be that the play feels far more warmly towards its characters than I did, but I know that I would have crossed the street to avoid any of them.
What makes New Town such a good time then is the complete professionalism present across the board. The set is clean and effective, as is Elliot Douglas’s direction which lets the action flow. A hats off to technician Natalie Psillou for handling sixteen lighting changes a minute as well. Most obviously though, each and every performance is outstanding. Ben Hood provides some much-needed warmth as Piers and carries the show with a quiet demeanour that shows both his insecurity around and deep love for his much younger husband, Michael. Matthew Gray in turn could have let Michael sink into a vain caricature but he finds moments to reveal depth behind the glossy exterior. The final actions are beautifully done and had me feel a swell of emotion that caught me by surprise, thanks to the wonderful dynamic between the two. Finn Doyle brings laughter with his exuberant Roddy, though again allowing for glimpses of something more complex, and Daniel Heidland is quietly assured as an outsider out his depth. His stillness grounds events when they threaten to fly too far into indulgence and he makes full use of a monologue that is so restrained it hurts. Whilst this is Piers’ and Michael’s story it shows how well-rounded Heidland and Doyle are that they could have held a whole play on their own. Finally, Ellie Connan has a lot of fun with Piers’ sister, Sarah. She steals the show with her larger than life portrait of self-importance and insensitivity that perhaps is the closest the show comes to truly landing a punch on middle class life. She savours every pointed line and delights every time she appears onstage.
New Town then, whilst it was perhaps a bit too gentle for its own good, was a slick, well-made show lit up by standout performances, direction and production design. The laughs come readily, and the end fills one with a warm glow, even if that glow won’t stay with you for very long.