Melissa Blease reviews William Boyd’s The Argument starring Felicity Kendal and Rupert Vansittart, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 24 August

A married couple return home after a trip to the local cinema. One of them found the plot insubstantial; one of them quite enjoyed the story. They have a couple of drinks… and then it’s bedtime. 

But Meredith and Pip’s ostensibly humdrum evening ends on a distinctly sour, bitter note when their disagreement over whether or not the film they saw was little more than flimsy piff-paff turns into the very opposite of flimsy piff-paff and everybody – including the couple’s best friends and Meredith’s parents – end up getting involved in one huge, nasty spat.

There’s a trio of clues that augur success for this production: it’s written by William Boyd, directed by Christopher Luscombe (surely one of the UK’s most prolific, imaginative directors) and stars Britain’s uniquely charismatic national treasure Felicity Kendal – a woman who has proved, on multiple occasions, that she’s long since left Barbara (The Good Life) Good behind in favour of proper, grown-up theatre roles, in which she never fails to excel.  

William Boyd’s programme notes’ claim that he’s “something of a new boy in the world of theatre” is slightly disingenuous. True, The Argument is only his third play (there was Six Parties in 2009, followed by Longing – an adaptation of two short stories by Chekhov – in 2013). But given that he’s written 15 novels, four collections of short stories and 17 film/TV screenplays, Boyd can hardly claim rookie writer status. His script for The Argument is as tight, sharp and accomplished as one would expect from a seasoned writer of his status and reputation, and the dialogue is, in many ways, the star of the show (although copious amounts of – and multiple references to – alcohol leave you wondering if wine is actually the main protagonist). 

One can’t help wondering what mild-mannered Pip (Simon Harrison) sees in noxious, obnoxious Meredith; he himself describes her as “pompous, self-regarding and self-important”… and Alice Orr-Ewing brings lashings of loathsome to the role right from the off, when she launches a demeaning, humiliating character assassination on her husband of just three years. But then again, while Pip is indeed a bit of a wimp, he’s apparently not too wimpy to be having an affair with a colleague.

Let’s turn to Meredith’s mum and dad for a bit of advice on the whole situation: what do they think about their daughter and son-in-law splitting up? Given that dad Frank (Rupert Vansittart, Game of Thrones) is as pompous, self-regarding and self-important as his daughter and mum Chloe (Felicity Kendall, in full-on whip-cracking wit mode) has, over 35 years of marriage, compromised on her search for contentment and settled instead for some kind of uncomfortable, dissatisfied impasse, they’re hardly going to offer Relate services, are they?

There’s little empathy to be found from Meredith and Pip’s best mates either: Jane (Sarah Earnshaw) actually doesn’t like Meredith much and probably fancies Pip anyway, while cocky Tony (Esh Alladi) is more troubled by Jane’s annoying speech patterns than he is by his friends’ fracas.

But the real trouble behind The Argument is that none of the characters are likeable enough to care about. As brilliantly well-observed, astutely well put-together and slickly produced as it is (and it is most definitely all of those things), it’s ultimately a play about middle class people dealing with first world problems and taking those middle class, first world problems out on fellow middle class, first world people.

The characters’ costumes (Boden; John Lewis; Hampstead Bazaar?) and the sets – Pip and Meredith’s stylish, expensive apartment; Chloe and Frank’s stylish, expensive home; Pip’s unstylish but, as he makes sure he points out to Tony, still very expensive temporary flat, etc – confirm that we’re firmly on ‘lifestyles of the bourgeoisie’ territory, mingling with folk to whom an Oxford education, parents with the ‘right’ job and a six-figure salary all mean far, far more than what real love really means. Is that Boyd’s whole point? If it is, it hasn’t been made quite so feistily enough.

At times, The Argument is all a little bit too comfortable to be as discomfiting as the themes (dissatisfaction; infidelity; resentment; mismatched couplings) suggest it might be. The characters are fittingly full of sound and fury, but when the arguments have all been had, they ultimately signify nothing much at all.

Main image: Felicity Kendal as Chloë and Rupert Vansittart as Frank in The Argument, credit: Manuel Harlan