Misery in human relationships is a primary motive in British comedy. Television sitcoms are often about the collisions of needy, dysfunctional people (eg. Mitchell and Webb's PEEP SHOW). If you believe what you see on stage or television, you'd think no one in Britain, gay or straight, had a happy relationship. Michael Wynne's THE PRIORY is another bleak, comic look at failed relationships with some metaphysics thrown in.
The impressive setting is the main room of a large, isolated country house that was once a medieval priory, filled with monks living out their beliefs. Now it is rented out for romantic getaways and parties. Kate, a failed novelist, and her ex-partner Matthew had booked the house for a New Year's Eve rendezvous before their breakup six months ago. As a kind of therapy, she has invited a group of old friends to the priory to ring in a new year and turn over a new leaf. The batch of friends who arrive are far from therapeutic. They're all lonely and unhappy. Gay Daniel looks for love in the wrong places. Ben brings Laura, his young fiance, whom he met the day before. She's a makeup consultant at Harvey Nichols who makes a game try at fitting in with this educated set, but as the night wears on, she reverts to her old suicidal alcoholic self. Carl and Rebecca are married with children. She's a successful television producer who very proudly combines her career with raising children. Carl is an out of work actor who was once Kate's boyfriend and who has resumed an affair with her. In other words, the party from hell. Drugs and liquor only seem to make people more miserable.
Along with the comic moments are serious questions. What fulfills us? Wynne seems to be saying that without some spiritual dimension to these peoples' lives, they will never be happy. After the scenes, recriminations and Laura's suicide attempt, Kate spends the rest of the night sitting up reading the Bible. After the couples have left -- it is unlikely any of these fragile friendships can be mended --Kate is left with Daniel (lonely straight woman and gay man together again). She makes a New Years resolution: I'm giving it all up . . . .All the striving for some big thing. Having to prove myself. Waiting for some future tim when I'm going to be happy. Tomorrow, next week, next year. This is it." Daniel responds, "Oh, God, I know." The "Oh, God" is more than an empty phrase. We're almost in T.S. Eliot territory here, but without the clear resolution. At the end, we see a mysterious, hooded figure at the window. Death? A monk signalling an answer? A murderer about to enter an isolated house (the setting is pure Agatha Christie).
THE PRIORY is an enjoyable play that hints at something deeper but doesn't quite deliver the goods. It is effectively directed (Jeremy Herrin) and has an ideal cast of the same actors one would hire for a BBC television drama about glamorous 30-somethings (Rachel Stirling, Rupert Penry-Jones, Joseph Millson). It's not a typical Royal Court play, but the audience, mostly in their 20s and 30s, seemed both amused and moved by it.
THE PRIORY by Michael Wynne, directed by Jeremy Herrin. Royal Court Theatre. January 6, 2010.