Review: Terrible Advice – Menier Chocolate Factory

In many ways it’s a headline writers dream – naming your new play Terrible Advice is just asking for unflattering headlines. In the end, the play itself isn’t terrible, but it gets uncomfortably close.

Saul Rubinek’s debut play follows the complex, interwoven lives of two couples. Stanley and Jake are best friends and are dating Delila and Hedda who also happen to be friends. Unfortunately neither set of relationships are particularly happy and, when the boundaries overlap, it causes the whole house of cards to collapse.

Jake is a serial liar, addicted to pornographic sex and disturbingly hinted a predilection for underage girls. His girlfriend, Hedda, owns the house and money and has already taken Jake back after his last infidelity. Stanley, known as Stinky to his friends, is in many ways an innocent in the ways of women, is suffering a breakdown while his girlfriend Delila has her own complicated relationship with his friends.

While there is potentially an interesting tale here, in its current form it just doesn’t work.

Much of this is down to a script that can’t really decide if it is a dark, comic farce or a brutal look at the harshness of relationships. There are comic lines in the script but, despite the efforts of a cast of comedy actors, they tend to elicit a titter rather than all out belly laughs. There is also a problem with the characters themselves. Four thoroughly unlikeable individuals are given only the sketchiest of characterisations. We only ever get hints at what drives them and have to make our own assumptions over much of the plot. While it is of course acceptable to make the audience do some of the work, here it just seems like lazy writing. There are various plot threads that are hinted at, Stanley’s ambiguous sexuality, his inappropriate relationship with a student and Jake’s relationship with Hedda’s daughter, but never materialise.

The writing resembles a television sitcom but watching it is more akin to having missed several key episodes and having to play catch up.

Frank Oz’s direction is efficient but needs to draw out real fleshed out characters rather than the current outlines. David Farley’s design also hinders the production; a series of flat panels tracked on and off cause more than a few unintentional sniggers and fail to evoke any sense of locale or atmosphere. There is an impressive appearance by a car but overall the design fails to impress.

Andy Nyman, Scott Bakula, Sharon Horgan and Caroline Quentin try their best with the material with Nyman and Quentin giving the strongest performances, perhaps aided by the strongest emotional hooks in the script. Bakula provides a thoroughly repellent Jake, though receives perhaps the biggest unintentional (one hopes) laugh of the evening with a misjudged reference to his Quantum Leap past. Horgan’s Delila is perhaps the most underwritten part of the evening and therefore struggles to bring it to life.

This is an early preview and therefore there is opportunity to develop the piece ahead of early night, but in its current form Terrible Advice seems more like an early work in progress script rather than the finished article. There are scenes that hold attention and provide a real glimpse of the potential of the piece but, as a whole, it’s a plot that goes nowhere with a quartet of characters that we really don’t care for. Sadly this seems to be another misfire for the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Caveat: This is a review of a preview performance. Press night is Thursday 29 September

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