Review: Faces in the Crowd at the White Bear Theatre

Ten years after it premiered at the Royal Court, Leo Butler’s fast and furious two-hander Faces in the Crowd returns to London – which coincidentally is where one of its characters, Dave, ran off to after he abandoned his wife Joanne (and all their debts) in Sheffield, to pursue a new life of sex, drugs and financial freedom in the capital. A decade later, and Joanne’s just arrived in town for a very particular reason; she wants what Dave was never willing to give her before, and she’s not prepared to leave without it.

Unsurprisingly, their first encounter in ten years is not without a considerable amount of tension, and it takes us a while to get to the bottom of why Joanne’s actually here. She certainly doesn’t seem pleased to see Dave, poking around his rented Old Street studio apartment with an expression of bitter, sneering disdain, and resolutely refusing to be impressed despite all his bragging about plasma TVs and Sabatier knives. Dave in turn seems uncomfortable from the outset, filling every pause in the conversation with restless activity and irrelevant chatter, in a frantic effort to prove he’s made a success of his new life. It isn’t long before the simmering atmosphere – fuelled by ten years’ unresolved feelings of hurt, resentment, inadequacy and guilt – boils over, but while this threatens to derail the evening’s carefully laid plans, it also feels like a confrontation that’s long overdue, and that they both needed to have in order to move forward.

Butler’s script is fascinating to listen to: a rapid-fire, back and forth dialogue between the two characters, which feels often more like two monologues running side by side. Both Joanne and Dave want to have their say, and it takes a long time for the two of them – and therefore also the audience – to really listen to and understand where the other is coming from. Actors Bonnie Adair and Adam Bone maintain this pace well, but also know when to slow things down and offer us glimpses of the vulnerability and lingering fondness that lurks behind each of the characters’ hardened defences. These two individuals have been damaged – perhaps beyond repair – not only by each other, but by a world that fooled their younger selves into believing they could have it all. It’s a very relatable story for a 21st century audience.

Michael Leopold’s set is exceptional, recreating in minute detail the entirety of Dave’s apartment, right down to the light switches, kitchen equipment, and a bathroom door that leaves rather too little to the imagination. Sound effects from Vittorio Verta add a further touch of authenticity to proceedings, and bring Dave’s unseen noisy neighbour into the story as yet another impediment to the evening’s plans.

Simultaneously funny, devastating and at times toe-curlingly awkward to watch, Faces in the Crowd makes for an intense 80 minutes that will resonate with anyone who’s ever had their heart broken or dreamed that the grass may be greener on the other side (or in this case, down south). But there’s also a cautionary note about the perils of putting material needs ahead of emotional ones, and of being lulled into the false security of living beyond our means. Such is the pace of Law Ballard’s production (necessarily so) that it’s not always possible to catch every word the characters are saying to and over each other; I’d love to now read the script and find out what I missed. But that quibble aside, this is a well executed revival of a powerful and thought-provoking play.

Faces in the Crowd is at the White Bear Theatre until 31st March.

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