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I have not seen one of Joe Penhall’s plays in the flesh before and so it was a great privilege to catch a production of his 1997 tragicomedy “Love and Understanding,” which Wield the Matter, a theatre company from Cambridge, are presently staging at C Aquila. This afternoon’s performance was virtually sold out, much to the discomposure of the poor audience. Seriously, it would be illegal to keep livestock in this heat. The audience are flapping hot air into each other’s faces, amazed that they are still conscious. I have spotted a single fan down on the stage, and if it cut out, we would all probably suffocate en masse.

Love and Understanding” is ostensibly a comedy, but it is too nervy and preoccupied to ever unwind and bathe in the laughter. The play is set mostly in the home of two young doctors (Will Attenborough and Charlie Hamblin). Neal finds himself working 100 hours a week; Rachel is less able to apply herself to her patients. Neal’s unscrupulous old friend Richie (Ben Kavanagh) descends upon the household, taking over the couple’s lives and minds. He has lost all of his money and his girlfriend in South America. He “writes.” Even though this play was written over a decade ago, Richie practically walks on stage waving a flag for my entire generation. He is listless and aimless; carefree and unhappy; neither a teenager nor a fully grown adult.

This play rests upon three initially unfussy performances, which gradually acquire an ever greater depth and power. The portrayal of Richie demands the most judgement and skill. He could easily lapse into a prankster or a socially awkward David Mitchell character; if overplayed, he could grow too sinister and alien for us to understand. Yet this production nails the part. We may suspect that Richie is only theoretically cynical, because he remains doggedly lovelorn for his lost girlfriend Nicky. Yet in contrast to Neal’s stagnant relationship with Rachel, Richie and Nicky have seemingly broken up whilst they were still in love, before things got too serious. The breakup henceforth cuts to the quick of Richie’s cynicism and irresponsibility.

Both Othello and Desdemona can see through this particular Iago, but they cannot find the energy to oppose his manipulation. They no doubt go along with Richie’s schemes, and suffer the inevitable dismay and paranoia, because they do not have anything else with which to fill their empty lives. Richie seems to have no life outside of Neal and Rachel’s relationship – there has to be at least one of them on stage for him to appear – and we may wonder if he is some sort of shared hallucination or something which has been sent from another world. When he is finally left alone with us for a minute, he proves deeply unpleasant, sipping pure gin and ranting abuse at the audience.

We are left to judge whether he has wreaked any unintended good. He teaches Neal that he has “wasted” his “entire life” and that he has no future with his girlfriend. Neal is converted to cynicism, but not necessarily saved.

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