It was Karl Marx — admittedly nobody’s idea of a hot playwright — who remarked that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. While it is a kind of instant history of the here and now, Samuel Adamson’s new play, “Southwark Fair,” sweetly pulls off the even rarer trick of being tragic and farcical simultaneously.
The London borough of Southwark borders the Thames (encompassing both the National and Globe theaters), and for his group portrait Adamson has borrowed setting and tone from Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson’s “Bartholomew Fair.”
Jonson whipped up a sprawling, rambunctious attack on Puritanism with a vast cast of fortune hunters, country bumpkins and con men both legal and otherwise. Adamson uses a lighter satirical voice to shine a spotlight on the present day. One day in particular, to be exact, in which seven people find their lives crazily intertwined.
The action, gracefully paced and placed by director Nicholas Hytner, pivots initially around nervy, nerdy property consultant Simon (pitch-perfect Rory Kinnear) who is in equal measure attracted to and irritated by Hungarian trainee barista Aurek (Michael Legge) in the local coffee bar he frequents with his neighbor May. She’s an aged, bit-part actress (nicely beady-eyed and wacky Margaret Tyzack) who devours biographies of famous women, busily deluding herself — and convincing no one — that she is up to star in the biopic.
The play being up-to-date enough to encompass gay civil partnerships (authorized in the U.K. in December), Aurek is getting married today — to the black, puritanically formal, New Labor deputy mayor Alexander (a ramrod-backed, overly uptight Rhashan Stone).
Simon, meantime, is fretting because he is about to have a date with his past. Out of the blue, he’s received a phone-call from long-lost Patrick (Con O’Neill), the first man with whom he had sex, at 14, during intermission of his school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which Simon was giving his notably unimpressive Puck.
Their hideously yet hilariously mismatched expensive lunch, a little masterpiece of good and bad manners, typifies the play’s mood. They each realize at different moments that Simon is not the man after whom now-married Patrick still lusts all these years later.
Adamson is terrific at gleaning comedy out of awkwardness and embarrassment, with each of them comically saying both too little and too much for comfort. Yet beneath the laughter is a rich undertow of disappointment and sadness.
The mix is further leavened by a paradoxically radiant Madeleine Potter as Patrick’s long-suffering ex-grunge, folk, rock-chick wife, Toni, who has lost the use of one of her hands and none of her whiplash tongue; and a happy-go-lucky Australian busker (Simon Gleeson) who looks askance at the increasingly absurd complications of these accidentally contingent lives.
Adamson has a second career as a play translator and, although his heart is with the master of bittersweet, Anton Chekhov — his version of “The Three Sisters” played the West End in the late ’90s — he recently adapted the National’s highly acclaimed version of Ibsen’s “Pillars of the Community.” Ibsen’s command of structure has rubbed off on him. Thus, in the second act, he replays key scenes from the first act from different perspectives with deliciously unexpected results. Nothing is quite what it seemed.
Hytner’s exacting direction illuminates Adamson’s quiet generosity of spirit. Thanks to O’Neill’s superbly self-lacerating performance as the loathsomely self-centered Patrick, we suddenly feel sadness on his behalf as he reveals his wretched self-hatred in a sea of drunkenness.
But even here Adamson’s engaging regard for the ridiculous springs to life with surprising detail. One of Marlon Brando’s boxing gloves turns out not only to be Patrick’s prize possession, but to have been used in at least one bizarre sexual practice.
The play’s carousel-like structure, with characters chasing heedlessly after one another to fulfill hopes, dreams and even hates would be helped by a more atmospheric design. Giles Cadle constructs a series of neat, chilly locations that cramp the acting space and remain stubbornly in search of an overarching visual metaphor. It’s too clean.
But then, arguably, so is the play. Loud and sprawling it is not. As May remarks to Aurek, whose idea of happiness is a family Sunday evening in front of the TV, “The noughties aren’t very naughty, are they?”