It’s no coincidence that the only sympathetic characters in Matthew Dunster’s bitter comedy “Children’s Children” are those who say the least. Put-upon spouses Louisa (Beth Cordingly) and Sally (nicely patient Sally Rogers) withstand everyone else’s endless speeches of self-justification, self-aggrandizement and self-delusion. They listen to a lot. Not as much, however, as the audience. Determined we miss nothing in his analysis of the motives and meaning of charity, Dunster repeatedly hits overkill. The more his characters talk, the less we listen.
Fortysomething Michael (convincingly forceful Darrell D’Silva) is “Mr. Saturday Night,” the big success story of a group of friends who met at drama school. Although fame has driven something of a wedge between him and his less successful friends Gordon (Trevor Fox) and Sally, they, plus Gordon and Sally’s cooler-than-thou daughter Effie (Emily Berrington) and her earnest, documentary-maker boyfriend Castro (John MacMillan), meet for lunch at Michael’s smart home.
Initially, this looks to be a standard if boisterous story of media friends musing upon hopes and dreams lost and won, but everything goes up a gear when, in the opening scene, Gordon begs for a loan. Contorted by embarrassment, he finally asks for a whopping £250,000 ($400,000), a sum Michael balks at but then hands over — in cash.
In a move typical of the play’s less than dynamic construction, Dunster closes the scene on what amounts to a cliffhanger but then drops tension by leaving the fall-out largely unexplored. Instead, the (in)action merely jump-cuts to a future scene of discussion ushered in with an exposition-heavy, direct-address monologue.
What’s missing almost throughout the play’s four-year span, until the entirely predictable reappearance of a major character in the final scene, is properly developed dramatic action. Offstage events change characters’ lives, but we neither witness them nor are given the opportunity to engage fully with their development.
With the exception of the loan, plotting is secondary to the playwright’s desire to satirize his self-obsesesed characters, which unbalances the proceedings. Scenes are filled with debates about what everyone is doing with their lives or, indeed, what they should be doing with them, all too loosely tethered to an “and then…” drama.
In order to keep things moving, helmer Jeremy Herrin’s actors go into overdrive largely because quieter, subtler performances would expose the writing. This adds energy but creates problems. Gordon’s physical restraint of his 19-year-old daughter is so vicious that the audience is shocked into silence. Yet once the moment has passed, the behavior is wholly ignored.
Played out across Robert Innes Hopkins’s elegantly versatile sets, the play’s downfall is its constant overstatement. Dunster is better known as a director, but here his ability to edit writing to dramatic effect deserts him.
Castro, permanently sponging off surrounding middle-class comforts, has a passionate, late speech about documentaries he wants to make exposing the collusion of the West in international geo-political disasters. But since we have always seen him to have good intentions never realized, we immediately guess the content of his speech and Dunster’s viewpoint. We reach the conclusions he wants us to draw after about two minutes. The speech lasts nearly ten.
Likewise, Emily Berrington’s brightly played Effie begins as a spoiled 19-year-old who understands less than she pretends and ends up richer but exactly the same. There’s a point being made here, but our understanding of her lack of self-knowledge is so thuddingly obvious that it and the play as a whole end up being not so much worthy as wearisome.