Ruby, Bread and Roses Theatre, London ★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Grief comes after an ending – be it the failure of a relationship or the loss of a loved one. In Jonathan Stephenson’s new play Ruby, Verity (Hannah-Jane Pawsey) is struggling to cope with both forms of grief – living with the loss of her mother, when her ex-boyfriend turns up at the flat they once shared for a late-night, post-curry booty call.

Playing the wide-boy Cockney boyfriend Ed, Stephenson has written himself a character that is initially all surface and no depth – a wide boy car dealer with a purely selfish interest in his own hormones and little else. In contrast, Pawsey’s Verity is fragile, but working out a way of living on her own. The cracks in this façade begin to be shown in small ways, with references to Verity’s family and divisions between them. There’s a sense of a light touch present in Stephenson’s writing here, using the shorthand between two long-term partners to eke out the reveal of backstory.

As the play progresses – and following some tortuously long scene changes – Stephenson winds the clock back to a time when Ed and Verity were still together. The tensions between Verity and the working class Ed – a Sun reader, we’re told, but who has no problem with allusions to Greek mythology and philosophical treatises – shift, as her constant surprise at his erudition beings to wear him down even as she needs his support for help with her ailing mother.

This time shift, a common device within many a play, is used well in the first act, providing realistic and often comedic portrayals of a young couple struggling both financially and with familial terminal illness that are both entertaining and touching. It is in the second act that Stephenson’s play begins to unravel.

A complete tonal shift post-interval initially sees Pawsey breaking the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience as she writes/dictates a letter to her now ex-boyfriend, before the action reverts to the timeline of the play’s initial scene. The subtlety of plotting which made Stephenson’s script so appealing in the first act is replaced by on-the-nose writing and cliché phrases. As the story progresses, the grief Verity was feeling seems subsumed by her guilt in helping her mother die, as Ruby resorts to treading a path of covering the difficult topic of assisted suicide in a manner which feels neither illuminating nor original.

As the final moments in the play descend into less of a shouting match and more of a mutual whine, both characters begin to shed the sympathy that has been gained in the first act, revealing two very selfish characters who deserve each other, not least to avoid them ruining relationships with anyone else.

The name of Stephenson’s play comes from the Cockney rhyming slang for a curry, discussion around which trickles through much of the play (while never offering much in the way of relevance). Like the conclusions Verity and Ed come to about a korma, Ruby is far milder than it thinks it is and, while it may be enough for some palates, it is ultimately an underwhelming dish.

Runs until September 3