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Review: Belleville, at Donmar Warehouse

James Norton and Imogen Poots, playing self-absorbed millennials in Paris, rescue play by US dramatist Amy Herzog that skirts a whole range of issues but doesn’t really explore any of them

05 January, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

James Norton in Belleville. Photo: Marc Brenner

ZACK and Abby are a young American couple living in Belleville, a district of Paris. He found a job in Aids research; she’s a failed actress now teaching yoga. James Norton and Imogen Poots make them look the perfect pair but when she comes in and finds him home unexpectedly early and wanking over internet porn the atmosphere isn’t easy.

Abby has a history of depression. Still popping Valium, she’s concerned for a sister about to give birth and desperate to talk to her father. Zak seems to build his life around wanting to please her but makes them stay in Paris for Christmas and won’t let her ring dad. Perhaps it’s to protect her, but from what? She admits to being “emotionally abusive” (but working on it); he seeks relief puffing pot when she isn’t looking. A visit from their Senegalese landlord reveals that unknown to Abby they owe four months’ rent.

US dramatist Amy Herzog’s play skirts a whole range of issues: about marriage partnerships, Americans in a different culture, family dependences and expectations, the puncturing of the American dream, spoilt millennials having to face real life – but doesn’t really explore any of them. If it weren’t for Norton and Poot’s performances this self-absorbed pair would become tedious; landlord Alioune (Malachi Kirby) and his wife Amina (Faith Alabi) seem more interesting.

For the first hour of the play’s 90 minutes there is a gradual uncovering of the lies with which this couple is living. The writing is real, moment by moment, though the backstory isn’t convincing.

When Abby uses a carving knife to trim a stubbed toenail it makes the audience uneasy but there is much worse to come. Built-up tension turns into melodrama, as the loud music and sound effects with which director Michael Longhurst separates scenes have already predicted.

There is a theatrical inevitability in the way things implode after all the duplicity and denial but it feels like contrived drama, not real life: that is perhaps why the play has a coda with Alioune and Amina clearing up the mess that is left.

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