Life & Culture

God of Carnage review: Middle-class parents go to war

Art playwright Yasmina Reza's play centres on two couples on a spectacular collision course


God of Carnage
Hammersmith Lyric | ★★★✩✩

French writer Yasmina Reza conquered the English speaking stage thanks largely to her stonking hit Art.

Quite whether the success of that show could ever persuade an artistic director here to follow in the footsteps of Austria’s Burgtheatre and stage an adaptation of her latest novel Serge, which sees three Jewish siblings of Hungarian descent (like Reza) grapple with the legacy of the Holocaust by visiting Auschwitz, remains to be seen.

But for the moment we must content ourselves with revivals of Reza’s gripping comedies.

This one from 2006 sees two married couples attempt and spectacularly fail to be civilised to one another. The encounter happens after the schoolboy son of lawyer Alan and wealth manager Annette (Ariyon Bakare and Dinita Gohil) has battered the son of writer Veronica and businessman Michael (Freema Agyeman and Martin Hutson) with a stick, knocking out two of the victim’s teeth.

Parents of the perpetrator are visiting parents of the victim in order to negotiate a measured civilised response to the assault, thereby setting a good example to the children.

Both couples are the epitome of the well-mannered, well-to-do classes from whom we can expect the best possible behaviour. Yet thankfully the veneer of smug civility soon begins to crack.

Fissures in etiquette not only emerge between the couples but in their marriages, and for much of this production’s 90 minutes the tension is ratcheted up through incessant interruptions caused by work calls to Alan’s mobile.

Politeness is stretched to breaking point by the readiness of parents to take criticism of their children personally. An attempt at rapprochement via a bottle of vintage rum fuels rather than placates the situation.

The trick here, for the most part elegantly performed by Nicholai La Barrie’s production, is to sustain tension through restraint. However as soon as control is lost, as at some point it must, the tension dissipates.

The cast are pitch-perfect but only up to the point arch sarcasm infects the discourse. Bakare’s lawyer is the embodiment of professional disdain until his deliberate mispronunciation of Veronica’s name makes him appear petty.

Similarly, Agyeman’s Veronica loses ground when even pre-rum she becomes shouty instead of snippy.

Still, there are few sights more entertaining than when the mask of middle-class civility slips revealing the usually suppressed barbarian beneath.

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