Melissa Blease reviews the UK premiere of Donald Margulies’ The Model Apartment, on at Ustinov Studio until 22 December

We’ve come a bit late to the review party for the UK premiere of Donald Margulies’ stunning new play starring celebrated British actor Diana Quick and Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), and directed by The Ustinov’s highly acclaimed artistic director Laurence Boswell.

As one might expect from a production that brings such a consummate combination of curators to the Ustinov stage, glowing reviews of The Model Apartment are trending across the board. So, is it really that good? Quite simply, yes it is; it’s really very, very good indeed.

Having said that, the themes explored within the confines of the deluxe Florida condo that elderly couple Max and Lola have made plans to retire to do not make for an easy-to-watch drama. The apartment they’ve landed in (an impeccably detailed recreation of 1980s-style aspirational home décor, designed by Tim Shortall) is merely a temporary waiting room until their own accommodation is ready. They’re unwittingly being followed by their troubled daughter Debby (plus equally troubled boyfriend Neil). And, as Holocaust survivors, they’re laden with more than their fair share of emotional struggles which, it quickly transpires, can neither physically nor psychologically be left behind in New York.

While Max and Lola are initially delighted and excited by their ‘glitzy’ new surroundings, it quickly transpires that the hi-tec TV is merely an empty box behind a big fake screen, the ashtrays and ornaments are glued to the surfaces and the fridge-freezer has no plug – just 15 minutes into the drama, and we’re already pondering the undercurrents of despair, disillusion and despondency behind symbolisms that point all-too-clearly to a distinctly unhappy ending for what should be new beginning. 

Ian Gelder is instantly likeable as Max, a man who attempts to camouflage his deep, deep internal pain with layers of optimism and humour. As his wife Lola, Diana Quick uses rose-coloured reminiscences and sanguine future fantasies in order to avoid the harsh realities of the present. And for Max and Lola, their present is far from a gift; cue the arrival of their dangerously disturbed, demented daughter (an outstanding performance from Emily Bruni), who isn’t set to allow her parents to escape from anything any time soon.

As if an already tense situation couldn’t get any worse, Debby’s bought her new boyfriend – a homeless man whom she met on the street, played with equal parts charming innocence/sinister threat by Enyi Okoronkwo – with her… and Debby’s dad is all-too-sharply reminded, yet again, of the daughter he left behind in utterly horrific circumstances, long ago, in a place where none of us would ever wish to return to, but from which Max can never escape.

As established earlier, The Model Apartment is not an easy watch. It forces us to consider again the barbaric savagery that inhuman anti-logic thrust on a generation of people, the effects of which still impact so sharply on new generations. It turns a sharp spotlight on the longterm impact wreaked by horror, terror, fear, grief and pain. In parts, it’s brutal, crude and harrowing. But above all, it’s poignant, sensitive, intelligent, articulate and intensely  affecting. Is it really that good? No, it isn’t; it’s phenomenal.

Main image: Diana Quick and Emily Bruni in The Model Apartment. Credit: Simon Annand