Don’t Destroy Me, Arcola Theatre, stage review: ‘Frantic pacing and overloaded dialogue’

Sue Kelvin (right) provides some ‘much-needed comic relief’. Photograph: Phil Gammon

January is a tense month, isn’t it? Cold and tense. Everything seems portentous to the coming year: my first dinner out in 2024, my first run, my first breakdown, my first trip to the theatre.

Speaking of, my first tumble on the boards is a resurrection of a long-forgotten Michael Hastings play, Don’t Destroy Me.

Hastings’ work, though not obscure, has not travelled much past the millennium. This is despite two Emmys, BAFTAs, a Somerset Maugham award, poems, TV and film adaptations, and an Oscar nomination. It’s a cruel business this one we call show.

Pumped full of excitement at witnessing one of the first works in a glittering career, I ventured out in the cold.

I was pulled along by the subject matter of Jewish refugees living in Brixton after the war – poignant and much neglected. The blurb promises a tale of precise social commentary.

Sammy (played by Eddie Boyle) moves with much excitement into his father Leo (Paul Rider) and stepmother Shani’s (Nathalie Barclay) house, having been raised by his grandmother in Croydon. This simple return to his family throws all the crockery in the air, and we are invited to watch it come thundering down.

Alex Marker’s set concertinas along the stretched studio. Downstage is a shabby living room, and an invisible wall allows us to peer through into a landing, while a hallway snakes up to stage right and along to stage left. Marker has taken a carving knife to a London townhouse, and it is a careful and clever cut.

Tenants bicker and nibble at one another. “Characters”, in the classic sense of the word, bluster and bash in and out of the cramped living room.

Sammy is thrown into a world of rotten love, mental illness, infidelity, and intergenerational trauma, and is submerged at lightning speed.

Various actors meld a corpulent script into something resembling reality.

Rider, as Sammy’s alcoholic father Leo, is one. This is a rambling, angry, and desperate man, broken by having to flee his homeland of Hungary.

Nicholas Day, as the Rabbi brought in to straighten out the family’s woes, has the mystic and measured pace of a holy man.

Sue Kelvin is the Knees Up Mother Brown landlady of yesteryear. She gossips and tangoes along the hallway, duster in hand, barking out rebukes at “them upstairs” who are late with the rent. She provides much-needed but swamped comic relief.

Along with very occasional flashes of comedy, the Rabbi’s scene, which sees the family and their neighbours share bread and fish on the sabbath, is an excruciating but delightful domestic battle.

Even borrowed china, shop-bought delicacies and a religious representative can’t stop Leo and Shani from ripping each other apart, complicated by upstairs neighbour Mrs Pond’s (Alix Dunmore) unsettling delusional outbursts.

We have all struggled through a dinner or lunch that seems to have been transported to hell, and this is the only point where the characters make sense as a microcosm.

This, however, is the exception to the rule.

Whether it is the frequent butchering of lines, the frigid blocking, or the text itself, the characters are shadow puppets, not people.

Tricia Thorn has a keen eye for dusting off neglected plays, but her direction here has characters regularly monologuing straight through walls. The interactions become unbelievable and the piece ricochets around in terms of emotional intensity.

Hastings’ play sits right in the angry-young-men era of British playwriting, in the same year as John Osborne’s seminal Look Back in Anger.

Don’t Destroy Me’s frantic pacing and overloaded dialogue threatens to douse the story. The uninterrupted monologues and the cyclical and repetitive content wear down our interest and willpower.

The fact that Sammy is only in this house of mirth for a little over a week before he loses his religion, optimism, and sanity is a hard pill to swallow.

Misty symbolism, along with some shaky performances, means that we fail to connect as an audience, being offered only a few rays of hope.

The characters are reeling from the unimaginable horrors of the Second World War, and unmitigated hopelessness is one of the play’s only lasting effects.

Don’t Destroy Me runs until 3 February at the Arcola Theatre.