A fistful of comedy of manners, a pinch of absurdism with a hint of surreal topping and you get Rory Mullakey’s Mates in Chelsea directed by Royal Court Associate Director Sam Pritchard. It follows the story of a vain, leisure-loving, man-child viscount Theodore ‘Tug’ Bungay (Laurie Kynaston) who has been living off inherited wealth in a spacious West London flat with a housekeeper Mrs Hanratty (Amy Booth-Steel) until one day there is none left and her mother Lady Agrippina Bungay (Fenella Woolgar) is forced to sell their Northumberland castle to a Russian Oligarch.
The larger-than-life yet empty-from-within tone is set right from the beginning with clever design (Milla Clarke) and directorial choices- an empty, high-rising, narrow-looking white apartment with steel fittings and a large colourful, bold painting of a cartoonish boy with a cigarette in his mouth and no eyes against the backdrop of a realistic castle. The painting spoke quite clearly for what is to come. It begins absurdly with Mrs Hanratty theatrically singing the Soviet National Anthem while sharpening knives while Tug arrives with sunglasses seemingly hungover. A set of schemes ensue as his mother announces on her biannual visits that she will be selling their ancestral castle to a Russian Oleg Michailovich Govorov (Philipp Mogilnitskiy). A range of schemes, disguises, and predictable plot twists ensue as the conflict of losing his castle, money, and power pitches Tug against his mother who has her own plans of escaping the fake aristocratic life with her accountant Simone Montesquieu (Karina Fernandez).
While the play was riotously funny and silly dissing the rich for their non-deserving wealth, it categorises itself in the in-betweens, neither fully here (comedy of manners) nor there (absurdism or realism), which is fine but these unclear, inconsistent choices seemed to have dripped down to the treatment, form and performances refraining it from fully making a point. The second act, set in the exteriors of the castle with a large tower looming at the back and a dingy title and bright pink and white lights shining through the windows, dragged a bit with assassins bringing the castle down which did not fully land for me.
The performances are marvellous with a cast committed to the production. Kynaston’s Tug was perfectly aimless yet smooth-talking, swinging from one guardian to the next- be it his mother, fiancé Finty Crossbell (Natalie Dew) or best friend Charlton Thrupp (George Fouracres). Dew’s Russian disguise is weirdly affectionate, while Fouracres changed characters like a chameleon with ease and great comic timing. Booth-Steel is brilliantly funny not missing a beat to garner laughter. Woolgar plays a striking aristocrat and a sympathetic mother.
While Mates in Chelsea is an entertaining watch, it struggles to find purpose. You can catch this play at The Royal Court Theatre running till 16th December 2023. https://royalcourttheatre.com/
Reviewer: Khushboo Shah
Reviewed: 9th November 2023
North West End UK Rating: ★★★