The Civilisation Game

Sometimes the comedy in Tim Loane's comedy-thriller fails to thrill, but the attempts at drama are usually comical

There are elements of farce here. A neighbour entering the house comes across the owner, clad only in his underwear and tackling a burglar and assumes that he has interrupted a homosexual tryst.

The Painkiller, previously at the Lyric and sharing this production’s excellent set design, had a similar joke woven into the text as a leitmotif. The repetition of the joke, and the character’s weary resignation at finding a man dropping his trousers every time he entered a room, added weight and colour to his misunderstanding. It was the audience’s anticipation of his repeated entrance at exactly the wrong moment that was the joke.

Here we just get the misunderstanding and, to hammer the point home, the lines: 'Your arse is mine,' and 'you’re only making it harder'. Subtly isn’t in it.

There are some very bad jokes in this play. A character mishears 'Dido' as dildo. In fact, the production does that one twice. (Dido is just one of a series of axiomatic middle-class signifiers presented here. Who listens to Dido? Not even Dido listens to Dido!). A bit of business with a tainted glass of water (I won’t say what happened to it) is repeated endlessly, with characters breaking character in furtherance of the joke.

Being a member of the middle class is presented as a series of peculiar tics or as a partial disability. Guy Noble (!), the protagonist, is presented as gym trim but fallible. He is a jazz bore with an inhaler and gluten intolerance. The women are sentimental and status obsessed. 

Robbie, the sole working class presence, can only ever be cunning and sly, weaving expertly around the bourgeois buffoons that surround him. But then they are, these theatrical working class types, all of them vicious and cunning and tenacious as rats. Loane is subverting that idea while at the same time reinforcing it. Robbie is smart, playing the couples against each other, using their prejudices about class and gender against them, the prejudices that the woolly liberal middle classes claim they don’t possess.

Ryan McParland is exceptional as Robbie, soliloquising with verve and style, especially in the second half when the tone turns darker and less pantomimic. Eugene O’ Hare as Guy, has the hardest job to do, as the archetypal liberal. Given the mechanism of the plot, we know he must get less and less sympathetic as the play draws towards its conclusion.

These are the pivotal roles, the heart of the play. The two seem locked into each other throughout as the increasingly paranoid Guy tries to get to the bottom of who Robbie really is and why he has broken into his house. The rest of the cast play it big, as though beamed-in from planet sit-com. Cathy White’s Amanda, in particular, sweeps onto the stage in her pyjamas like Penelope Keith borrowing a cup of sugar.

The subtitle of the play is 'The making of a suburban myth' and Loane is playing with these archetypes, drawing on a pool of stock characters. There is the liberal wimp, the wife obsessed by the ticking of her biological clock, the belligerent self-made man and the socially ambitious shrew.

We know these people, though not in real life. They are the stuff of drawing room comedies and Whitehall farces. As secrets are revealed and the character’s relationships are exposed we might have expected them to become more rounded and human.

In fact, we learn little of their motivations or about what makes them tick. It just turns out that they are pretty horrible people and, well, we already knew that. When Guy’s fiancée Roisin (Alexandra Ford) suddenly switches from a brow beating harpy to the voice of reason we can’t understand why. It isn’t earned.

This play is great to look at. The acting is uneven but accomplished and the audience certainly loved it. But for me The Civilisation Game was too bogged down in the stereotypes that it attempted to examine, abandoning its raison d’etre for a few cheap laughs along the way.

The Civilisation Game is at the Lyric Theatre until May 26. For more plays, exhibitions and arts events check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On Guide.