Entering the auditorium a few minutes before the official start of the show, my eye was already drawn to the stage. The set itself is cleverly minimalist – black curtained background adorned simply with white rectangles to represent doors and windows, and dominated by two plainly dressed sofas which with coffee tables and a sideboard indicate a typical middle class sitting room, all suggesting that the play as well as the set is representative of more than is seen.
Two of the cast – the residents, clearly – prepare for visitors and as we watch, a second couple are ushered in and greeted cordially, so that we join the conversation as the house lights dim.
So far, so polite. The two couples are there, we understand, to discuss an incident between their respective sons in which one had injured the other. The parents of the perpetrator, the visitors, are keen to keep things civil and friendly, acknowledging their son’s guilt, while the victim’s parents are prepared to be reasonable in finding a way forward.
At first, at least. Very much as in Lord of the Flies, the boys work together in a civilised way – at first. In fact, God of Carnage is in many ways an adult Lord of the Flies – it examines how easily the thin veneer of social respectability cracks, and the savagery that lies beneath. Each of the four characters metamorphose during the play from the civilised members of the bourgeoisie they like to portray, into childish bigots and bullies.
Alain, played with superb superciliousness by Jason Harris, is a top-notch lawyer engaged in defending the indefensible actions of a pharmaceutical company: his relationship with his mobile phone is clearly far more important than his son or his wife who he affectionately – and patronisingly – refers to as ‘Woof-woof’. However belittled she may be in her marriage – and she does rebel at the end – Annette herself is in wealth management, and the couple may be seen as representative of the corporate right wing capitalist middle class. Amy Burns, as Annette, is brilliantly repressed…until the rum starts flowing.
Set against them are Veronique, a writer and activist who appears at the start to dominate both her husband and the conversation. Helen Reading invests her with the perfect mix of social awareness and arrogant passive-aggressive moralising. Joel Leverton, as her husband Michel, a self-made domestic hardware salesman, moves skilfully from urbane host to proclaiming, and indeed proving, himself to be ‘fundamentally uncouth’.
In fact, as the debate degenerates into defensive name-calling, every character’s uncouth interior is revealed, and the conflict between the couples develops to each couple revealing issues within their own relationships. At one point the men gang up against the women, and as a bottle of rum is rapidly consumed the metaphorical gloves really come off.
Under the skilled direction of Steve Reading, the four extremely accomplished actors make the disintegration of the social niceties very funny: there are some truly hilarious moments and a couple of useful subplots involving Michel disposing of his daughter’s hamster, and his mother’s phone calls which reveal she is taking the medication Alan’s clients are pushing on to the market. However, the real value of this play is that after seeing and laughing at it, one is left with many points to ponder.
God of Carnage was written 15 years ago but the points it makes about the way we conform to the social persona we have adopted, how we appear to accept and live by our moral and political values and yet how close to the surface is the self-centred, self-serving bully, are still more than relevant today.
There’s still time to catch the show at the Apollo Theatre – and I very much recommend that you do! God of Carnage runs at 7.30pm until Saturday 13th November and tickets are available online at https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/apollotheatre/god-of-carnage/e-pjymmp or the Apollo box office on 01983 210010.