The Summer House

Three men – two doctors and one stranger – fret over their career paths and ponder dormer windows, while sniping at each other like children and trying to achieve the impossible task of seeming macho by getting pissed in a hot tub. This collective effort from Will Adamsdale, Neil Haigh, Matthew Steer and director John Wright about masculinity, friendship and three men on a stag-do in Norway treads a comedic path that has become well worn in recent years.

The twenty-first century imagination is unforgiving of the educated middle-class man. As a type, we’re ridiculously easy to take pot shots at; and in the 12 years since the millennium, we’ve been riddled with holes on stage for our neuroses, social attitudes and hang-ups. But if male identity crisis isn’t a new theme, this doesn’t take away from its treatment here, which is often painfully and hilariously close to home.

Watching Adamsdale, Haigh and Steer lay bare the shifting allegiances, smug in-jokes, pretentions and anxieties of three men engaged in a constant, unexpressed game of one-upmanship is like someone making you laugh by hitting your funny bone. The three are great together, punctuating their dialogue with moments of brittle bravado that twist the script into something even more excruciatingly resonant. When their characters ridicule the abstract art on the walls of the summer house they break into in the first scene, their over-eagerness and surreptitious sideways glances reveal the mockery for what it is: showing off.

The show is at its best in these smaller, low-key moments, particularly when exploring the tensions that bubble up after the characters move to the outdoor hot tub. As they joke too loudly about where to put their legs and resort awkwardly to laddish chat to avoid talk of marriage and parenthood, the conversation jars and falters. Steer is particularly good here, his hangdog expression speaking volumes. Where are the social boundaries these days? How much contact, physical or emotional, is allowed? It’s clear that, if there’s an answer, they don’t know it.

However, as secrets are revealed and friendships fracture and fall apart, so, to an extent, does the production. The interpolation of Norse legend throughout – stories of squabbling gods, lovelorn giants and macho acts of honour-bound violence – is initially amusing as a counterpoint to the grandstanding of the present day. But ultimately it detracts from the play’s fun and sense of purpose.

As plot threads are left dangling, the fabric of the show becomes increasingly loose and shapeless. Neither the revelation that one of the three isn’t who he says is nor a heavily foreshadowed diving trip in sub-zero Norwegian waters leads anywhere in particular. And as Wright’s production abandons the inventive minimalism of the opening scenes – where a combination of poor-theatre acting, plastic sheets and a leaf blower conjures up an entire world – in favour of a cracking stage and billowing smoke, it bloats and seems to lose sight of itself.

Ending with a crash, bang and several wallops, the show aptly mirrors its characters’ descent into house-smashing adolescent behaviour as their head-in-the-sand response to the stresses of being a modern man. The noisy, chaotic and un-focused final scenes are still entertaining, but you’d be forgiven for suspecting that the actors dancing around the stage and throwing stuff at each other are enjoying themselves more than you. And if you’re male, you might just be a little depressed by the implications of it all.

First published by Exeunt