Hot on the heels of its successful production of Red, the tale of a painter struggling to deal with his own success and a new generation of groundbreaking artists, comes Lanford Wilson’s Serenading Louie, which follows two successful thirtysomething couples pining for a lost youth.
Who knows whether it was a conscious decision by the theatre’s Artistic Director Michael Grandage or not, but the idea of losing your vibrancy, cutting edge and youthful endeavour, becoming part of the system rather than railing against it, seems to be high on the Donmar’s agenda.
Serenading Louie, set in 1970s Chicago, follows two marriages hitting patches stickier than a syrup-slathered pancake. Their troubled but outwardly successful lives find them living in a kind of limbo; not old enough to be the establishment but too old and jaded to fight it any more, living what should be happy family lives but clinging to every inch of youth they can. Each reminiscence is dubious in its integrity, as tales of youthful endeavour take on an air of myth and legend.
There are more issues than age at work here. The relationships are as unhealthy as the previously mentioned pancakes, the only honesty coming between the two male friends, who may well fight and goad, but at least tell each other the truth. Yet behind every issue lurks the spectre of unfulfilled potential and the idea that life promised so much but has delivered so little.
The four-strong cast of Jason Butler Harner, Charlotte Emmerson, Jason O’Mara and Geraldine Somerville banter and argue like the old friends they are – Emmerson’s skirt-clutching Gabrielle always the outsider looking in at a past she does not share – inviting the audience into their confidence with asides that are sometimes hard to separate from conversation.
There is nothing like a bit of recognition in a play to draw you into the character’s lives. Having turned 30 not that long ago, the sense of re-evaluation and romantic reminiscing raised a wry smile. Yet there is something far more dysfunctional at the heart of these couples, heralded on the stage by projected adverts and the American national anthem, which drive them to the piece’s dramatic conclusion.