'God of Carnage' review – Freema Agyeman is the standout in this heated war of words

Read our two-star review of Yasmina Reza’s award-winning comedy God of Carnage, now in performances at the Lyric Hammersmith to 30 September.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

The children are back at school and a heatwave has hit London – and tempers reach boiling point as two sets of (upper-) middle-class Parisian parents confront each other following a playground fight between their 11-year-old sons in Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage.

The loud atonal pre-show music (by Asaf Zohar) sets the mood for a dissonant 90 minutes. Doctor Who star Freema Agyeman and Martin Hudson are Veronica and Michael Novak (a writer and a businessman), parents of Bruno, the playground victim, while Dinita Gohil and Ariyon Bakare are Annette and Alan Raleigh (a wealth fund manager and a lawyer), parents of Ferdinand, the perpetrator.

Based in the Novaks’ home, Lily Arnold’s sleek, circular Lyric Hammersmith set – which rotates at a snail’s pace and is beautifully lit by Richard Howell – is (intentionally) more like a boutique hotel than a family living room and not a place where you’d expect two children and, until recently, a hamster to live.

French playwright Reza’s work was first performed in Zurich, in German, in 2006. The British premiere in 2008 starred Janet McTeer, Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Greig and Ken Stott and won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy (whether it’s a comedy is debatable). On Broadway, it won the Tony for Best Play and is the third longest-running play of the 2000s.

Despite these accolades, Nicholai La Barrie’s production, while well done with what he has to work with and capably performed (Agyeman is the strongest), doesn’t make a convincing case for why this play, which is far from a great piece of writing, should be revived. So much can change in 15 years, even if Succession has shown that rich people being miserable while wearing expensive neutrals does have huge appeal.

Bruno has called Ferdinand a “grass” (do children today use that word?) and refused to let him join his “gang”, and, in retaliation, Ferdinand knocks out two of Bruno’s teeth. Initially competing over who can be most magnanimous over coffee and clafouti, Veronica’s passive-aggressive needling and Alan’s barely concealed belligerence tips over into flat-out warfare between the two couples; random alliances are formed and quickly dropped, and the cracks in both marriages are exposed.

In Christopher Hampton’s translation, the action is set in France but the names are anglicised. The characters make philosophical pronouncements that don’t go anywhere, as if they’re role-playing at being Sartre or De Beauvoir.

Gohil’s Annette, who tries to be smiling and obliging, ends up being sick and damaging the pretentious Veronica’s most prized possession, a rare art catalogue. Veronica writes about Africa but sees herself as a guardian of Western values.

Alan is the most obnoxious of the lot, a high-powered lawyer who defends war criminals and pharmaceutical companies and who constantly shouts into his phone about something to do with the medication that it transpires the mother of Hudson’s bumbling Michael has been instructed to take. If Ferdinand really is a “thug” in waiting, we can see where he gets it from.

From the amount of rum imbibed, severe hangovers are on the cards, which serves them right, but it isn’t at all likely they’ll learn from it. After all that circuitous arguing, it’s a relief to escape to the breezy Circle Line.

God of Carnage is at the Lyric Hammersmith through 30 September. Book God of Carnage tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: God of Carnage (Photo by The Other Richard)

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