Could you put a value on your closest friends in the world? Could you, say, value them in the same way you would value a property?
This is the concept at the heart of Valued Friends, the excellent new production of Stephen Jeffrey’s 1989 play.
The story explores four friends experiencing breakdowns in their relationships during a dispute with their new landlord over the beloved flat they all share.
Directed by Michael Fentiman, a talented cast of six carry this production with wit, ease and sophistication.
In the 1980s, Howard, Marion, Paul and Sherry (Michael Marcus, Catrin Stewart, Sam Frenchum and Natalie Casey, respectively) are approached by their new landlord and property mogul, Scott (Ralph Davis), and offered a significant sum of money to vacate their shared London flat of many years.
What follows is a long-running standoff over several years between both parties, as well as between the friends themselves.
The seemingly happy lives they have been living together are suddenly threatened by money and conflicting ideals.
It is not immediately clear what exact message the audience are supposed to take from Valued Friends, but perhaps this ambiguity is intentional.
This reflective comedy makes us question our relationship with money, how we value our own friends and whether we too would let anything come between our relationships.
The small cast shine in their diverse roles. Casey is brilliant as the eccentric, chatty Sherry, who has absolutely no control over her spending.
She causes frustration among the other characters, but always in an endearing manner, and seeing her ultimately place her friendships above any amount of money is refreshing.
Marcus as introverted professor Howard is also superb, his utter exasperation over the proceedings as he declares the flat ‘just a building’ makes us laugh and sympathise with him all the way.
It is particularly resonant that all he wants to do above all the mess is write his book on the corruption of capitalism.
Yet the most intriguing relationship by far is that of Paul and Marion. Frenchum and Stewart portray the troubled couple of 10 years in a heart-breaking manner.
A common squabble over one wanting children and the other not turns into so much more as the pair face what can only be described as an existential crisis.
As Marion cries that things must stay true forever with sarcasm and pure bitterness, the audience finally see the full extent of the damage money has caused in the pair’s relationship and realise that nothing will be the same for these four adults again.
Davis’s slightly camp Scott alongside Nicolas Tennant’s Stewart, a builder lacking personal boundaries, provide some much-needed comic relief in the more sombre moments of the show, and this successfully brings back the initial light-heartedness of Jeffrey’s play.
A simple yet functional set from Michael Taylor fits the production perfectly, although the transitions between scenes are questionable.
The 80s’ music interspersed throughout the show is great fun, but the dramatic lighting transitions, often consisting of a dimming spotlight on one character before crashing into a blackout, seems a little extreme for a play branded as a comedy.
The intention here is not clear, but it doesn’t draw too much from the production as a whole.
Valued Friends will make you laugh, but as you witness the steady breakdown of relationships you are ultimately invited to review your own morals.
Valued Friends is playing at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until October 12.
Feature image credit: Pamela Raith Photography