Review: The Barrow Group’s ‘Muswell Hill’ Scales the Heights
By Justin Sharon, Contributing Writer, November 21, 2017
In this, the week we give thanks for New World bounties and pioneering pilgrims who fled the mother country, it’s as if the English never left. Last week a Downton Abbey exhibition opened on 57th Street and last night, 21 blocks downtown, another British invasion premiered. This time the green and pleasant land is Muswell Hill, Torben Betts’ play set in the eponymous upscale north London enclave.
Jess (Colleen Clinton), an affluent accountant, and her aspiring novelist husband Mat (Jason Alan Carvell), host arguably the most awkward dinner party seen in the British isles since Banquo’s ghost gatecrashed that Scottish banquet. The tenuously-married couple’s sleek modernist kitchen, all polished counter-tops and gleaming stainless steel, provides the backdrop as silver-spooned guests speak in forked tongues while the knives come out. The year is 2010, and 20,000 Haitians have just been killed in an horrific earthquake. Yet, while paying stiff upper lip service to this tragedy in the wider world, the navel-gazing protagonists are a study in superficiality, self-absorption, and first world problems.
Societal outcast Simon (Richard Hollis) is “Quite good looking in a Ted Bundy sort of way,” according to Karen (Lily Dorment), still mourning her dead husband. Meanwhile Jess’ sloshed 22-year-old sister Annie (Sarah Street) has invited her sexagenarian Seneca-quoting fiance Tony (John Pirkis). The eclectic gang’s all here, and what ensues is a Simon and Garfunkel lyric come to life — ‘People talking without speaking / People hearing without listening.’ It’s an engrossing tale of parallel staccato conversations, pretentious blather, ill-timed exits, and protagonists ignoring one other while seeking solace in the warm distracting glow of their electronic gizmos.
Winston Churchill once opined that ‘English and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language.’ (Tell me about it; my spell check insists on turning “Theatre” into “Theater” at the end of this article). The production does a nice job of deciphering the difference, with each arriving audience member being given a British glossary. Among its 16 entries is an explanation that Jon Snow is an “English journalist and longest running presenter of Channel 4 news.” “Not” — unlike his Game of Thrones namesake — “an inhabitant of Westeros.” Two other touches effectively evoke Albion. Cadbury’s beloved Curly Wurly chocolate bars are on sale at the concession stand. And, before the start of a play whose characters feel compelled to keep up with the Joneses, we are treated to a song from those morose Mancunians, The Smiths.
The British say that today’s front page headlines are tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper. Setting the action almost a decade ago does somewhat date the performance — in our ADHD news cycle, the Haitian earthquake now feels almost antediluvian. Still, this is a minor quibble. The overall cast is excellent, but a pair of performances do merit special mention. Dorment imbues Muswell Hill with moments of comedic timing worthy of The Lavender Hill Mob. And Street’s standout scene involving a Cleopatra cameo, the subject of spontaneous applause, is worth the admission price alone.
British food has improved immeasurably in recent years but, as any viewer of Gordon Ramsey can attest, its kitchens are evidently still the stuff of nightmares. Muswell Hill is a worthy addition to the pantheon.
Muswell Hill presented by The Barrow Group Theatre Company and The Pond Theatre Company at The Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor, through December 16, 2017. Running time is approximately 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. By Torben Betts. Directed by Shannon Patterson; scenic design by Edward T. Morris; costume design by Kristin Isola; lighting design by Solomon Weisbard; sound design by Matt Otto; props and video design by Addison Heeren; production stage manager: Allison Raynes. Cast: Colleen Clinton, Jason Alan Carvell, Lily Dorment, Richard Hollis, Sarah Street, and John Pirkis.
Cover: (l. top r.) Lily Dorment, Richard Hollis, Colleen Clinton, Jason Alan Carvell, and John Pirkis in ‘Muswell Hill;’ photo: Todd Cerveris.