views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Different Class
Etcetera Theatre
20th September 2015


Robert Ansell and Lucy Penrose as Andy and Maria

Photography © Kurtis Parker

It doesn't matter how old you are, we've all done it. Sat in a pub or coffee shop or even just in a mate's house and put the world to rights. Moaning about the young is no longer a pastime exclusively for the old, oh no, those of us who are still technically just young whippersnappers are equally capable of being grumpy. Andy (Robert Ansell), a gigging comedian and best friend to laid-back graduate Maria (Lucy Penrose), is a prime example of this. He's chasing his dreams on the comedy circuit, what's she doing? Rubbish grad schemes designed to tick boxes and destroy the soul? What was that bit of paper worth, eh? There's a lot that Andy can and does rage about in Kevin Lee's new play, Different Class.

It's a good thing that Maria knows he doesn't really mean it. Actually, let me rephrase that: it's a good thing she knows the anger isn't directed at her per se, she's just the sounding board that's available. And drinking buddy. Quite a pretty one at that too, even if she's only functioning on an inhuman amount of sleep and is flopping around in baggy lounge wear. Despite the comfortable platonic dynamic - or possibly because of it - from the get go we suspect that Andy and Maria are not just any ordinary Friends.

Although the intention behind the words is clear, the dialogue is initially a touch awkward. However, when Andy stops talking about politics and instead discusses his stand up career, there's a marked shift in tone. Director Imogen Beech helps us catch our first glimpse of real vulnerability, capturing this flash of uncertainty, embarrassment and hope. As Lee well knows, you can't just create material out of nothing, you must put something of yourself in it to give it power. Andy may be confident in a room full of strangers, but here he's delivering a highly intimate gig, stripped of all the usual defences. There's nothing more cringeworthy than getting feedback from your nearest and dearest and we really feel for Andy as he puts himself out there in front of Maria.

In his previous work Time for Heroes, Lee used one of his protagonists as his own voice, using him to convey a political message. Here he uses one of the two main characters to share with us some of his own personal insecurities as a creative artist. As this feels more genuine, we connect on an instinctive level. Andy is rounded out and the dynamic with Maria is rebalanced, allowing us to properly see into that history we always knew existed. The conversation becomes more natural, and much more engaging.

Will they? Won't they? Do we even want them to? Well, let's admit it, everyone secretly always wanted Ross and Rachel to get together, even if those Friends were from a different class. I suppose this is where the play's biggest strength and weakness lie. It has a sitcom feel to it, which makes the changes in mood more even, however it come across as one of those mid-season episodes rather than grand finales. When you reflect back on what happened, you realise this is one you could have easily skipped in the run up to the big cliffhanger.

It feels like Lee isn't trying to make a point as such, rather prove that he's capable of good characterisation and create something where emotions are key rather than underlying agendas. It's an interesting showcase from that perspective alone, but it does feel like he's playing with little ideas rather than putting them all together into one big opus. Call it a warm up, if you like. I don't know what he's getting ready for (what is the end of series reveal?), but Lee has certainly piqued my interest.

Different Class ran from 15th to 20th September 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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