God of Carnage at Lyric Hammersmith review – only comes alive in its final moments

Freema Agyeman and Matin Hutson in God of Carnage (The Other Richard)
Freema Agyeman and Matin Hutson in God of Carnage (The Other Richard)

We never have to wait long for a new revival of Yasmina Reza’s play which, like her other great success Art, attracts starry casts to take on the particular rhythms of her savage takedown of middle-class civility every few years. This time it’s the turn of Freema Agyeman, familiar as Doctor Who companion Martha Jones, in a production directed by Nicholai La Barrie. It looks stylish but only comes alive in its final moments.

It’s a slowly unfolding grudge match: Veronica and Michael vs. Alan and Annette, two sets of parents whose boys have been involved in a fight. Over coffee they carefully, politely, discuss what happened. But the accord doesn’t last long and soon they’re drinking, slanging, ranting and (front row beware) throwing up.

The star, really, is the staging. “She’s a phony,” Veronica says of Annette late in the play, “she’s someone who tries to smooth the rough edges”, and that’s what we get here: a swish, slowly revolving living room of marble and brushed metal in which everything – tables, pouffes, lamps – is circular. In Lily Arnold’s design all the rough edges have been smoothed, everything is phony.

Agyeman draws this idea into her performance too by making her Veronica, a moralising author, seem more like an out of work actor. Big arm gestures accompany every line as she raises her hand hammily to her forehead or strikes her breast dramatically.

Dinita Gohil, Freema Agyeman, Ariyon Bakare and Martin Hutson (The Other Richard)
Dinita Gohil, Freema Agyeman, Ariyon Bakare and Martin Hutson (The Other Richard)

It makes for a strong contrast with Dinita Gohil’s Annette who remains pencil-straight and constrained for a big chunk of the play. But they’re all overdoing it: Martin Hutson’s Michael delivers everything like it’s a hilarious punchline, while Ariyon Bakare’s city lawyer Alan veers sharply between pomposity and childishness.

By taking life and turning it up a notch, by having them all act so much like they’re acting, La Barrie doesn’t quite trust the play to work on its own terms. As translated by Christopher Hampton, Reza’s dialogue has a machine-tooled rhythm. La Barrie’s production never quite finds that precision. It’s like someone playing the drums and never quite hitting the metronome beat.

Then, surprisingly, things come alive in the final stretch where everyone’s stopped pretending and they’re just drunkenly swearing and yelling at each other. Dimly lit, the actors are half-shaded grotesques of their former selves, and suddenly Reza’s play proves more potent than ever: it’s social media writ small, four people at their absolute worst saying whatever the hell they want.

When it premiered in 2008, it was the play’s civil beginning that reflected real life – we disagree but let’s try to get on – but 15 years later, society looks a lot more like the feral end.

Lyric Hammersmith, to September 30;