The last time Matthew Perry — former heart-throb star of the long running 90s TV series Friends — appeared onstage in the West End in 2003 it was in Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Now he returns 13 years later in a play he has written himself called The End of Longing, in which he plays a man who resists calling himself an alcoholic: "I prefer the words 'drinking professional". And Perry has himself lived up to that description (he's had well-documented stints in rehab).
The play could be retitled Sexual Awakenings in LA. Each of the characters goes on a journey as a result of a sexual encounter - towards sobriety (Perry's 40-year-old photographer Jack), a change of career (Jennifer Mudge's high class escort Stephanie), or parenthood (Christina Cole's neurotic Stevie and Lloyd Owen's dimwit Joseph).
The seriously re-touched publicity image of Perry that adorns the poster for The End of Longing may contravene the Trades Description Act — he's looking bloated and his hair is streaked with grey in real life. But he is undoubtedly good casting for a character whose life is hurtling towards oblivion and who gets a second chance.
The only problem is that so much of this feels utterly contrived, superficial and unconvincing, right up to and including his desperately self-pitying final admission that he has a problem at an AA meeting; no 12 step group I know allows 'shares' of that length, nor do participants end them by saying "I'm Steve and I'm an alcoholic"; that's the form for introducing yourself, not signing off.
Dramatic contrivances abound, including slipping in and out of direct address monologues; while Anna Fleischle's glossy designs have to constantly shift between scenes that run between a bar, bedrooms and other locations with seamless fluidity. And the actors have to shift between wise-cracking sitcom cracks and mining deeper emotions in what is basically a rom-com with darker edges.
The actors, including Perry himself, do better than the material actually deserves in director Lindsay Posner's efficient production. Jennifer Mudge makes a glamorous 35-year-old hooker seem plausibly committed to her lucrative career choice, even if it involves, as she says at one point, blowing overweight 60-year-old men. And Lloyd Owen invests his lovable lug of a man with genuine warmth and compassion.
"While the play clearly aims to deal with four loners struggling to come to terms with early middle-age, it feels more like an extended sitcom in which there is little going on behind the lines."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"If anything, the evening feels like a creative writing exercise of minor therapeutic value...all feels like a curious waste of time, money and effort – and I’m sure I won’t be the only one watching this rickety star vehicle who’s left longing for the end."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"There's so little believable connection or tenderness between these friends and lovers, and their characters have about as much depth as a puddle in a heatwave."
Holly Williams for The Independent
"This is actually a heartfelt, solidly acted look at fear and addiction — uneven yet undeniably dark."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard