Nicola Harvey reviews a ‘masterfully played comedy’ at the Theatre Royal Bath

What a treat to be at the theatre on the first day of the new term! And what a particular treat God of Carnage is!

I must confess, I knew very little about this production except that it involves a dispute between two sets of (superficially) terribly nice parents over their children’s squabble. The squabble involves two of eleven-year-old Henry’s teeth being knocked out by Freddie. Henry’s parents, Veronica (played by Elizabeth McGovern) and Michael (Nigel Lindsay) decide that the best way to proceed is with a civilised meeting with coffee and homemade Clafoutis.

It wouldn’t be giving too much away to say that the get-together doesn’t stay all that civilised for all that long. One of the things I loved about the play was the perfect pace with which it descends into chaos. There are moments of true farce, but just as it risks being a bit too ridiculous, there is a moment of pause and redirection.

All four actors (Freddie’s mother Annette is played by Amanda Abbington and his father Alan by Ralf Little) have exquisite comic timing and deliver perfect ‘looks’ that sum up exactly what they are thinking but are, as yet, too polite to say out loud.

Accomplished as the acting is, without Yasmina Reza’s carefully written, and at times brutal observation of modern life, and Christopher Hampton’s translation, the perfect storm that happens in such refined surroundings (Veronica has a very high calibre of coffee table reading) would not be possible. The script, but also the generosity of each member of the cast in allowing each other’s comic moments to shine individually leads to a very satisfying ensemble piece, is at the heart of the success.

The cleverly designed set (Peter McKintosh) is circular, Veronica’s and Michael’s sitting room being enclosed in almost amphitheatre style walls. There are plenty of adversarial moments where the round yellow rug feels just like the dusty floor of a Roman arena. I don’t want to push the comparison too far, but Alan’s and Annette’s coats felt at times like gladiators’ cloaks in the way they were swept on and off.

It’s a long time since I properly laughed out loud in the theatre and there were many moments of that last night. Plenty too where my hand went up to my face in shock at what had just been said or done. I can’t stress enough how individual moments and the piece as a whole were so deliciously paced, and the two or three truly shocking incidents and revelations were no exception. I can’t give spoilers of course, but I did check carefully on our hamster when I arrived home!

It is a piece that mocks the pretensions, nonsense and absurdity of middle class behaviour, and the challenges of throwing parenting into that too. All four parents were pretty inept in their different ways. Cleverly, their portrayals were both, at different times, ridiculous caricatures and so touchingly vulnerable and real that I couldn’t help feeling for them.

Even if it didn’t require emergency dental treatment, any parents in the audience will have been in either Freddie’s or Henry’s parents’ position (or both) and know how hard it is to respond sensibly when your child is either hurt or accused. To the cast’s credit, even with the farcical nature of some of the action, the parents’ responses to the situation felt touchingly real.

It is a short piece, roughly an hour and a quarter long and with no interval, but I felt completely satisfied by the end – yet another example of the wonderful pace and timing. I thoroughly recommend God of Carnage to anyone who wants to reflect on the trials of modern life or just be carried along on a wave of masterfully played comedy.

God of Carnage appears at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 15th September.
To book tickets contact the Theatre Royal Bath Box Office on 01225 448844 or visit www.theatreroyal.org.uk