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If one couple invites another to spend a single night of “pleasure and fulfilment” with them in their home, surely you don’t expect the visitors to arrive with suitcases? Sadly, this clumsy, disappointing new play – by playwright Michael Kingsbury – is full of such implausibilities.
Matthew and Tanya are a childless couple in their mid-forties. Married for fifteen years, they live in a sleek, modern Islington townhouse (Janet Bird’s set design is a thoughtful juxtaposition of sharp edges and expensive comforts) and shop in Waitrose. They have decided to spice up their relationship (to which they have become “accustomed”) by advertising online for sex with another couple. Enter Ryan and Kelly, South Londoners (Peckham, to be exact), twenty years younger, and a labourer and shop assistant respectively.
The changing nature of consenting adult relationships, the options now being explored, and how the internet has affected the way in which we meet other people is an interesting, topical subject, yet it’s one with which Kingsbury does frustratingly little other than revert to predictable stereotypes. Staid psychiatrist Matthew (an appropriately awkward and emotionally reserved Jason Durr) is immediately smitten – of course – with blonde, buxom Kelly (Charlie Brooks), apparently opening up to her in a way he never has to his wife. It’s never convincingly explained or explored why he didn’t just have an affair, instead of persuading his wife – clearly against her wishes – to invite strangers into their home.
The first half centres on the two couples getting to know each other over an awkward meal – though if you invited another couple over for sex would you feed them dinner first? – and provides a few laughs, but the moments of humour are shallow because the characters are woefully underdeveloped and Kingsbury relies on outdated notions of the divides between North and South, rich and poor.
The only thing that could possibly make you want to return after the interval is to find out what has really brought these couples together for a night of passion, and for there to be an exciting, believable twist. We know bored Matthew just wants a good shag, but we’re then asked to accept that he would house two complete strangers and give them thousands of pounds because of that boredom, and because he feels some sense of civic duty to help out. The no-less implausible reasoning offered for Naomi’s grudging acquiescence is that she feels guilty about seeing another man while she and Matthew were first dating.
Ryan and Kelly’s use of rather flowery language sounds an odd note from the beginning. Initially you wonder if this is part of an elaborate subterfuge on their part, but, as it turns out, there’s no real reason behind it: it’s just another example of poor writing. They arrived with their suitcases because they’re in debt, and they want to dupe an older, rich couple into letting them stay and into giving them money, in exchange for sex. Which of course is the first solution you would think of if you came to be in that situation. As the play reaches its denouement, its clear Kingsbury intended this to become a psychological mind game between the two couples, but the combination of stereotypical characterisation and implausible motivations significantly reduce the possibility of any meaningful psychological impact.
The actors make the best of a poor script, and Tanya Franks is the best of the bunch as Naomi, who provides the play’s emotional centre. Franks’ portrayal of Naomi suffering rejection on all sides provides a few moments where a character breaks out of Kingsbury’s one-dimensional world to finally show some depth.
Contact.com could have been sharp and funny. It could have challenged us to think about relationships and the concept of monogamy in the 21st century. It could have provided an interesting perspective on the notion of social responsibility, or on whether there is such a thing as no-strings sex. Instead, devoid of genuine humour and with the plot lurching from dull predictability to frustrating improbability, Contact.com fails to make a connection.
Contact.com continues at the Park Theatre until February 14. Tickets are £15-£25.