The Hampstead Downstairs continues its strong run of programming with The Argument, further developing already existing creative relationships. This is William Boyd’s first original play, following his adaptation of 2 Chekhov short stories in Longingwhich played the main house in 2013, and it is directed by Anna Ledwich, who helmed the Olivier-nominated Four Minutes Twelve Seconds here in 2014.
Though it is a much abused term when it comes to theatre marketing, The Argument really does fall into the category of dark comedy. Pip and Meredith are just back from seeing some popcorn flick at the cinema and a disagreement about the flimsiness of the plot snowballs into a titanic argument about the very nature of their relationship, which then cracks under the strain. In a series of two-handers, Boyd then shows us how the ripples of this quarrel impact on their best friends Tony and Jane and her parents Chloe and Frank, provoking new arguments too.
Boyd is very good at astutely pointing out the multitudinous ways in which we argue but also how we respond differently too, to compromise or to counteract. Whether infidelity, long held familial resentments, casual drinking problems, or rising inflections at the end of a sentence, Ledwich keeps the substance of the arguments in The Argument feeling fresh throughout in a series of brilliantly well-observed performances, all modishly clothed in the expensive shades of white, cream and taupe of the upper middle classes.
Janet Bird’s set design equally evokes impractically stylish wealth but also places the protagonists in the round (well, the square), suggesting the inevitable arena for conflict and the alternate glare and twinkle of Elliot Griggs’ lighting plays into this sense of the fighting ring. In the blue corner, Marianne Oldham’s Merry is a marvellously jagged presence, quick-witted but very quick-tempered too, and in the red corner, Oliver Dimsdale’s Pip is no less pugnacious as he’s forced onto the defensive, their combative marriage really put through the wringer.
There’s real pleasure though in Diana Hardcastle and Michael Simkins as Merry’s parents, a couple well accustomed to each others flaws and deeply romantic with it, as well as downright hilarious especially in Simkins’ dry delivery. And there’s much fun to be had with a slightly daffy Rebecca Humphries and a brilliantly cocky Ryan Early as the friends, trying to find common purpose in reuniting their pals but unable to hold back their own disdain.
The emphasis on the role that alcohol has to play in all of this is perhaps a little overstated in the final analysis – most of these people could start an argument in an empty house – but there’s much to enjoy here, in an almost rubbernecking fashion, in watching privileged others tear each other apart and then try to put themselves back together again.