Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Coningsby Productions’ How to Make Friends and then Kill Them is that, unlike so much student theatre, it avoids political posturing and trains the spotlight squarely on its three characters. Asked why he chose Halley Feiffer’s 2013 play (which has never been performed in Europe before), director Charlie Rogers drew attention to Feiffer’s claim that the play is feminist because it depicts women behaving awfully and viciously onstage in a way which is often only the province of male characters. The focus is duly on the behaviour and the interpersonal dynamic of the central trio – not the overblown canvas of recent American politics, or the play-hijacking hijinks of Brexit. Written for performance in a black-box theatre, How to Make Friends and then Kill Them is a natural choice for the Michael Pilch Studio, as Rogers also points out – and suitable for the unfussy minimalist treatment it receives at his hands, and those of set-designer, Deshna Shah.
The black comedy covers, in ten-minute snapshots, the lives of sisters Ada and Sam, from age 9 to age 27. Ada is an ambitious self-proclaimed beauty, obsessed with musical theatre and with herself; Sam is sensitive and draws pictures. Their permanently offstage mother is an alcoholic, and the resultant rot has set into the two girls some time before the play begins; Ada casually asks Sam to bruise her arm, but has a horror of hugging, and the other kinds of physical interaction that her lonely, needy sister is pining for. They play childish games, in which Ada’s self-centred lust for performance and Sam’s craving for personal contact are run against each other – and exposed as mutually exclusive. Ada meets a new friend, Dorrie, and begins to torment Sam with her preference for the newcomer; then she fails to make it into college with Sam and Dorrie, and crumbles. Sam, exploiting her new dominance persuades her sister to drink, begins to turn the psychological tables on her, and things start growing fascinatingly unpleasant. The fast-paced succession of scenes ensures the sequence of episodes keeps its momentum – which for the girls onstage, as they age in leaps and bounds, increasingly comes to seem fatal.
In some ways the play’s exploration of dysfunctional sisters resembles Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Housekeeping (1981) – except her sisters weren’t as dysfunctional as these, and Feiffer pulls no punches in condemning a recognisably contemporary malaise. Her foul-mouthed schoolchildren slip into the language of broken modernity – ‘Stop asking me to validate you!’ Ada shouts at her sister more than once – and Dorrie is given the vocabulary of child therapy to describe her very funny roll-call of mental and physical (and probably invented) problems. Saraniya Tharmarajah, as Dorrie, particularly excels here. Her array of marvellously grumpy expressions and strange ‘therapeutic’ breathing noises are a virtuosic comic performance. Imogen Front is ideally cast as Sam, her small, sorrowful face conveying first crippling self-doubt and then a disturbing hardness; as Ada – the play’s nearest to a Blanche Dubois figure – Simone Norowzian exhibits maturity and charisma, and the deepening sense of damage which is key to this dark three-hander.
Rogers and his committed cast present this unusual play (produced by Lewis Roberts) with a sense of urgency but without gimmicks, in what promises to be an entertaining and unsettling European premiere.