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Hard Feelings

The comings, goings, loungings and snortings of a group of middle class twentysomething Oxford graduates sharing a house in freshly-gentrified Brixton. Viv, (Frances Barber), whose loaded parents own the place, acts as matriarch-cum-go-between for the various warring factions that make up the rest of the loose-knit tenancy. In the blue corner are Annie, a supercilious model with a sideline in half-arsed ’shocking’ collage, and Rusty, a New Romantic Billy Fury with little regard for anything outside his own clothes and hair. In the red are Jane, a bookish Jewish law student, and her boyfriend Tone, an SWP activist and radical journalist. Somewhere between the two is geeky, Timmy Mallett-bespectacled northener Baz, who’s the nearest of them all to gainful employment, being a PR organiser for the World Frisbee Championships.

Outside the permanently-drawn curtains, real life is taking place, specifically the 1981 riots in reaction to the Brixton police’s controversial Operation Swamp stop and search policy, which Tone attempts to draw the housemates’ attention to, to little avail – Rusty’s sole reaction is a howl of despair as a police siren interrupts the vocal track he was recording for his latest flatulent song. Other internal factors cause the group to fall apart. Rusty stops knobbing Annie and starts with Viv. Jane, always slightly apart from the others, is barracked by the casually racist Annie, and Viv’s purchase of one of her swastika-adorned works for the house fails to help matters.

Finally, Tone blows the whistle (via the Mirror’s Paul Foot) on Rusty’s coke-snorting lifestyle – it turns out he’s the parasitic son of the editor of ‘the Mirror’s biggest rival’ tabloid. We close on the depleted household of Viv, Annie and Baz desperately trying to make the house look respectable for Viv’s visiting parents – the party’s clearly over, at least in this house.

What makes Doug Lucie’s play stand out is its prescience in identifying a sub-culture (called ‘the New Swingers’ at the time) whose amoral decadence and apathetic attitude was at odds with the popular (perhaps revisionist?) perception of the militant spirit of the early ‘80s. Of course, it’s the decadence that has survived – Tone’s withering dismissal of the Brixton slummers as people ‘training for the suburbs’ while all around them people are living there for real is as relevant today as ever.

Other details which by rights should seem laughably dated by now are worryingly modern-sounding – as well as Annie’s posturing proto-Brit Art, Rusty’s band is described as four blokes standing motionless behind stylophones (‘It’s conceptual!’ he protests) and of course the spectacle of a privileged son of a prominent public figure caught gakking it up is in no danger of being consigned to history’s dustbin.

But for all this, there’s a flaw down the middle of the programme, which stems directly from its no-holds-barred satirical intent. By presenting the housemates as a unit of amorphous types, set up for our derision, the play becomes a heavy-going seventy minutes. During one of the (purposely) interminable scenes where, say, Viv and Rusty exchange half-arsed, feeble, hangover-from-adolescence insults at each other, you long for some Black Stuff broad banter, or well-observed Rosenthal non-sequiturs. A hint of real character, in short, among the exaggerated middle class monstrosities.

This isn’t the point of the piece, of course, but there’s a one-dimensional feel to it as a result – the destruction of such rickety straw men is too easy to really mean much. It’s like a feature length version of Alexei Sayle’s Stoke Newington routine, or The Young Ones with the surreality bleached out. For all that, it’s still on the money for its territory, and worth a gander for any students of the early 21st century ‘howl at the Hoxtonians’ school of satire.

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