Last Updated on 12th February 2016
The End of Longing
Imagine an episode of Friends. Except they’re all now in their 30s and 40s, and are plagued by their addictions and neuroses (insert joke about the upcoming Friends reunion here).
That’s the basic premise of The End of Longing; a coming of age story for those who are already of a certain age. And to top it off, its star and writer is Matthew Perry, best known for playing wisecracking Chandler Bing in the much loved American sitcom.
The play follows four hopeless singletons in the city as they seek to make sense of their questionable life choices and ticking biological clocks. There’s Jack (an alcoholic, played by Perry) Stephanie, (a prostitute), Stevie (needy and neurotic) and Joseph (nice but dim).
Naturally, being a romantic comedy, they all improbably bump into each other and then start pairing up. Jack and Stephanie struggle to accept each other’s vices, whilst Stevie and Joseph end up in a relationship initially borne more out of desperation than mutual affection. An unplanned pregnancy throws the group into disarray and causes them to reflect on priorities and the occasionally necessity of change.
This production represents Perry’s writing debut and it’s certainly not a flop; I have seen much poorer efforts from established playwrights. There is some razor sharp dialogue and genuinely hilarious moments, especially when delivered in Perry’s cutting tone.
However, you are often left wondering whether the world needs another big city romantic comedy; at times the dialogue feels far too familiar, with the last ten minutes of the first half lapsing firmly into the clichéd. The play’s introduction, with characters stepping forward to introduce themselves felt lazy and seemed to be used as a substitute for building up emotional depth and characterisation.
Most of this first half is played for laughs, until the last few minutes when it lurches straight into some hard-hitting dramatic tension. The characters all seemed so self-absorbed and one-dimensional at this stage that it was difficult to care what happened to them. The second half felt a lot more realistic and balanced, with the comedy and tragedy intertwining much more seamlessly.
Whilst the jury is out on Perry’s writing, he acted well in a part and production that clearly had emotional resonance for him. His struggles with addiction are well documented and he channels these experiences to play the selfish and destructive alcoholic Jack.
Perry excels with his character’s multiple quips and comebacks; it feels like familiar territory for him having spent over a decade dishing them out to millions on TV. Jack is not easily moved to emotion, but Perry generally handles the more challenging scenes with subtlety, even if he is competing against his own saccharine dialogue.
Jennifer Mudge is suitably bright and breezy as the conflicted escort Stephanie, coming across as headstrong and yet also vulnerable. Christina Cole is enjoyably irritating as the highly-strung Stevie, although looks much younger than her character’s 37 years.
The most interesting performance came from the superb Lloyd Owen as the loveable idiot Joseph. At first it seemed that the character would be a one-note buffoon but he actually emerged to be highly complex and the most sensible person in the group – a Manhattan Falstaff perhaps!
The play is chopped up into a series of stand-alone vignettes, enhanced by Anna Fleischle’s wonderful set. It is a fluid combination of screens and projections that combines intimacy with a sense of foreboding about a scary wider world outside.
The constantly moving set, combined with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s thrilling music makes scene changes oddly enjoyable, even if the frequency of them felt disruptive at times. Bizarrely, a fight arranger is credited in the programme even though there was nothing close to a scuffle on stage; who knows what sort of ultra-violence may have been cut at the last minute?!
Whilst guaranteed to bring in decent crowds, a commission from a famous yet untested writer was a big creative risk for the Playhouse Theatre. It is a creditable effort from Perry, but I don’t think anyone will be longing for The End of Longing in a couple of months.