Preview of The End of Longing by Matthew Perry
No matter where you go in the world, the stars of NBC's hit sitcom 'Friends' are instantly recognisable. The global phenomenon ran for ten seasons between 1994 and 2004 and spawned a cultural phenomenon. From girls asking hairdressers to recreate 'The Rachel' and whole cities absorbing casual coffee culture to a proven change in our idiolect with Americanisms and phrases crossing over into the English language, the wider social implications of a TV series have rarely been felt so strongly.
The final episode in May 2004 broke records as it was watched live by 52.5 million people in the USA alone, making it the most watched television episode of the 2000s and marking a significant end of an era. By the ninth and tenth season each of the six actors were earning $1million per episode, making Aniston, Cox, and Kudrow the highest paid TV actresses of all-time.
Since the show ended in 2004, the question on everyone's lips was what on earth next? For the six main actors who featured in all of the 236 episodes, it was expected that glittering film contracts would come rolling in, and each of them would go on to make equally successful franchises in their own right. Hollywood beckoned for Jennifer Aniston, whilst Courtney Cox and Lisa Kudrow would go on to create equally memorable characters in smaller TV shows such as 'Cougar Town', 'Web Therapy' and 'The Comeback', which in my opinion is one of the greatest television characters of all time.
The cast of NBC's Friends
Matt Le Blanc bought into a spin-off of the original show which saw his character Joey travel to LA to chase a film career to continue his unique brand of "how you doin?" charm and social misdemeanors. David Schwimmer was the first to officially tread the boards, making his West End debut in 2005 with Neil LaBute's 'Some Girl(s)' which ran at the Comedy Theatre with a cast that also included Catherine Tate and Lesley Manville. He later went on to make his Broadway debut in the courtroom drama 'The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial' which ran at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in 2006.
Matthew Perry's first experience of the West End was in David Mamet's 'Sexual Perversity in Chicago' which ran from 3 May to 2 August 2003 at the Comedy Theatre in a production directed by Lindsay Posner, alongside Minnie Driver, Hank Azaria, and Kelly Reilly. The play wasn't met with fantastic reviews, with many critics finding fault in both Mamet's 'tame' 1974 script and Posner's 'shakily acted' production, and it raised the debate over the casting of high profile names in slight plays in order to ensure bums on seats.
For Perry's latest London stage outing, which sees him reunited with director Lindsay Posner, the play is really the thing, and Perry finds himself being judged on two separate fronts. Writing and starring in your own play is a gift reserved for only the most commercial of names, and with the West End practically immune from opening new writing cold, a box-office draw is the only way that such work can possibly be mounted within the commercial sector.
Minnie Driver and Matthew Perry
The London fringe and non-profit sector continues to fly the flag for new writing, with venues such as the Hampstead Downstairs providing much needed creative spaces to young writers who otherwise would never be afforded the chance to develop their craft. Whilst the West End is certainly its own commercial entity, even plays by some of our most recognisable writers such as Martin McDonagh and Duncan Macmillan must first 'try out' in the more comfortable environments of The National Theatre and the Royal Court.
For Perry, opening a show cold in London is certainly less bold than opening direct on Broadway. Not only is the financial risk significantly less, but London audiences are in many ways more open to taking a chance on new work, especially a play that deals with themes such as alcoholism and addiction. There's a distinct honesty in Perry's work that feels true to both his own experiences and cathartic for the actor that has publicly suffered with drug addiction.
Coping with addiction is a theme that Duncan Macmillain's new play People, Places and Things also addresses, albeit in a much more powerful, and somewhat less trivial way. Whereas Perry keeps the tone relatively light and the comedy black, Macmillan aims to let the audience experience exactly what addition, and its treatment can feel like. The End of Longing is billed as a 'must see' comedy, whereas Macmillain's piece is much darker in tone - but both boldly explore a taboo theme in contrasting theatrical ways.
Matthew Perry and Lloyd Owen
Whether one is more effective than the other remains to be seen, but Perry's play is certainly from the heart and involves the actor speaking frankly about what it feels like to be addicted. As all of the 'Friends' cast have discovered, it's certainly hard to shake off the ghosts of their most famous character creations - but you find yourself asking, why should they? Without knowing it, the six characters came to represent an entire generation, and many people will be turning up at the Playhouse Theatre to see 'Chandler Bing' rather than Matthew Perry.
It's easy to be cynical about celebrities on stage - the Playhouse Theatre was recently home to what was certainly the worst example of producer's cashing in on star names as it housed Lindsay Lohan in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, also directed by Posner. Out of her depth and with a prompt placed firmly stage right, Lohan drew in a new crowd of audience to see Mamet's somewhat dated and tricky play, but you have to ask, how many of those 'new' audiences have been inspired to return to the theatre since?
Perry's double duty is to be commended. Not many people experience the anxiety of being judged simultaneously as an actor and a writer - critics will tomorrow wade in with their thoughts on both his words and his performance. As writer Larry Gelbart said, "If Hitler is alive, I hope he’s out of town with a musical..." If opening a musical out of town is to be wished on Hitler, God alone knows who deserves to be starring in and opening a West End play cold, but 'Chandler Bing' is certainly ready to give it a good try.