William Boyd is used to having his formidable array of novels adapted for the screen. Here, though, he has written – only for the second time – directly for the stage, providing the Theatre Royal Bath with its major summer season production The Argument, a dark and waspish comedy of bad manners.
Lying and loving, peppered with a brutal spray of honesty, are the focus of the interactions between six not particularly pleasant individuals, trapped in an increasingly savage series of altercations. The catalyst, as so often is the case in real life, is the simplest of family spats between not-long-married Meredith, made both condescending and devious by Alice Orr-Ewing, and husband Pip, lent a welcome touch of humility by Simon Harrison, over the quality of the film they have just seen.
Boyd is at his best in the latter stages, however, when we see the couples’ differences mirrored in the toxic marriage of Meredith’s parents Chloe, played with self-centred venom by Felicity Kendal – one of the TRB’s all-time favourite actors – and Frank, a suitably snobbish Rupert Vansittart.
Equally at risk are Meredith and Pip’s respective best mates Jane (Sarah Earnshaw) and Tony (Esh Alladi), whose role as the couple’s unofficial marriage councillors isn’t helped by personal feelings a tad beyond that of friendship.
Framed by Simon Higlett’s chic two-level set, director Christopher Luscombe teases out the rich vein of comedy to be found in human relationships under strain. But it is the acerbic side of affairs that leaves the strongest impression – a characteristic familiar to Boyd readers.
Reviewed by Jeremy Brien