Dirty Hearts bills itself as an existential comedy for the age of anxiety – and it’s certainly full to the brim of wit. It starts with pace and plenty of tension as Julienne (Allegra Marland) rails with humorous outrage against her two friends, Ben and Laura (played by Pierro Niel-Mee and Isabel Della-Porta, respectively) for daring to get back together. Marland draws peals of laughter early on and Paul Murphy’s script provides plenty more where that came from.
In the pre-set, the four actors sit moodily on a bright, reflective stage. A white backdrop lends the feel of an art gallery; none of the four seem particularly comfortable. This is to be the battleground of their friendships, their relationships, their betrayals. From start to finish, the actors never leave the stage and steadily, under harsh lights, the play exposes the heart of who they are and who they want to be. It’s an intimate, intense affair.
The humour and the intensity of the relationships shown make the play interesting to watch. Unfortunately, for me at least, the script doesn’t really progress from these amusing jokes to something more substantial. Murphy is clearly trying to engage in some serious social commentary, but there’s just too much of it. The script is chock-full of one-liners and well-informed diatribes, but much thinner on character and plot. As a result, the canvas of each character is plastered so heavily with punchline and didactic wisdom that there’s little room to see a real person underneath. I found myself steadily disengaging as, despite being heavily drunk, Ben found the mental bandwidth to snap clever retorts; and even more so when Simon (John MacCormick) found time to sermonise on smartphone supply chain politics whilst confronting the complete breakdown of his relationship. Sadly, I also found the non-linear narrative difficult to keep track of, despite (or perhaps because of) projected reminders at the start of each scene detailing the exact day, date and time.
The piece has kernels of genuine enjoyment. A scene as Laura unpacks, trying to begin her new life, felt real and engaging. Della-Porta is really strong in this scene and others, flipping naturally between starting her new life confidently in one moment to insecure in the next. I enjoyed those moments where the play allowed its plot and purpose to intertwine. When we feel the pressure Laura is under to appraise a Renaissance masterpiece – questioning how one can put a price on art, and what it is we value – we see how it influences her relationships: in these moments I thought the voice of the piece was clearest.
For me, a tighter play (running closer to the billed 90 rather than 105 minutes when this reviewer attended), focussing on the core of plot and ensuring the characters find space to feel real alongside keeping us laughing, would have improved the piece. In the end, whilst Dirty Hearts delivers on the comedy, its existential crisis belongs mainly to the script.
List of creatives
Written by: Paul Murphy
Directed by: Rupert Hands
Produced by: Pine Street Productions
Design by: Sophia Pardon
Lighting design by: Hector Murray
Sound design by: Jamie Lu
Dirty Hearts pays at Old Red Lion Theatre until 30 April. More information and bookings can be found here.