Review – Becky Shaw, Almeida Theatre, London

“Was it good?” the drunk on the tube asked me, gesturing towards my chips.

I looked away. ‘Never share your chips with a drunk on the tube’ might not be a well known rule of London life, but there’s nothing wrong with it as a principle and struck me as a pretty good one to follow at the time.

“Was the play good?” he asked, gesturing to the programme under the chips. “I’m going to see it in a few weeks time.”

Becky Shaw is an import from an off-Broadway run by a Boston theatre company. And yes, in answer to your question, yes it is good. Very good indeed.

The plot follows adopted siblings Max and Suzanna through bereavement,  financial ruin and mental illness – but nothing prepares then for Max’s disastrous first date with the eponymous heroine, Becky Shaw.

David Wilson Barnes, imported with the play from New York, is utterly, wonderfully superb as the cold-hearted, analytical, rational but never unlovable financial adviser Max. He brings that assurance that comes from clearly knowing every inch of a role. Max isn’t a type, he’s unusual and strange but he never seems so from Barnes’ performance – his portrayal is really quite something to behold.

Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Anna Madeley impressed in the much maligned but very good, as far as I was concerned anyway, Earthquakes in London last year at the National. Her performance here, as Suzanna – the Max-like foil to her simpering husband and the unlovable Becky – puts her credentials beyond any doubt. She comes close to stealing the show from Barnes, which is pretty impressive.

Haydn Gwynne as Susanna’s mother, Daisy Haggard as the surprisingly (given the title at least) underused Becky and Vincent Montuel as Susanna’s husband Andrew are all fine, but are frankly outgunned and outwritten by the work of the two leads.

The Pulitzer Prize shortlisted text by Gina Gionfriddo is wonderfully crafted: intelligent, funny and playful all at the same time. It’s relaxing, because it’s clear that you’re in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much in a theatre.

But this play isn’t just funny (although it is, for the record, very, very funny); it’s also a moving character piece. Never heavy handed, it treads the line of incredulous comedy very carefully, never parodying a character – even the unfortunate Becky – except through the reasonable voice of another reasonable character. This is a comedy of characters who seem ridiculous to everyone except themselves.

Despite tonight being the first performance I was utterly, utterly taken with this play. Give the performances a few days to bed in with an audience – I think some of the actors weren’t ready for the number of laughs they got tonight – and this will be one of the best shows running in London.

We don’t do stars here at Sans Taste, but this earns our highest honour: Becky Shaw is a must see.