The Donmar Warehouse has had a strong couple of years, featuring some very explosive drama. Now they go for a more low-key interlude, but I can't say it's a gamble that pays off. American writer Lanford Wilson's plays are rarely imported to the UK and I can't say I'm surprised on this evidence. Serenading Louie (either the title is never explained or I nodded off when it was) takes place in suburban Chicago in the 1970s, with a single living room set representing the homes of both couples, Alex & Gabrielle (Jason Butler Harmer & Charlotte Emmerson) and Carl & Mary (Jason O'Mara & Geraldine Somerville.) Peter McKintosh's set is beautifully detailed, perhaps too accurate - apart from a green carpet and some blue furniture, everything from clothes to set is a very 70s brown, brown, BROWN. It's quite oppressive right from the start, and to me it had the odd effect of making live action look like a faded polaroid.
The last image is fairly apt I guess as reminiscence is at the heart of the play. Alex and Carl's careers are both on the up but their marriages are disastrous, and everyone spends a lot of time dwelling on "glory days" from the past, from childhood up to college years. At the heart of the play is the familiar worry that this is all there is to life and you're nobody special. I do often like the conceit of banal discourses that gradually reveal something more sinister underneath (Alan Bennett's Talking Heads are pretty much built on the idea) but from the start Wilson's scenes feel like a bit too much of an accurate slice of life: Although there's moments when it comes to life (Somerville, in the best scene by far, turns in a bitchy drunken performance in the first scene after the interval) most of it is as brown and dull as the surroundings. It's just over 2 hours long but it easily feels like three.
Michael Grandage's new season for the Donmar has just been announced and seems pretty exciting so hopefully this is just a glitch, but for now the Donmar turns in what is definitely a missable production.
Serenading Louie by Lanford Wilson is booking until the 27th of March at the Donmar Warehouse, followed by a tour to Salford, Leicester and Truro.