Third world problems in a Muswell Hill kitchen

Torben Betts’ black comedy set at a Muswell Hill dinner party spotlights middle-class dysfunction, says Bridget Galton.

When playwright Torben Betts lived in Muswell Hill, he found himself falling prey to “kitchen envy”.

Forced to move away from the area because he couldn’t house his growing family on a writer’s wage, Betts has exacted a kind of dramatic revenge by setting his “dark comedy of middle-class dysfunction” in a Muswell Hill kitchen.

As property values climb, the north London enclave has eclipsed Hampstead as the place where wealthy urbanites throw dinner parties, have affairs, and vaguely fret about disasters in far-off places.

In Muswell Hill, the kitchen is the eye of the storm during one such dinner party on the night of the Haitian earthquake.

“I don’t have anything against Muswell Hill,” insists the 47-year-old, who now lives in Berwick-Upon-Tweed.

“I lived there for four years and would live there like a shot. When I was walking around I used to see these houses with fantastic kitchens and wonder what people did to be able to afford such properties. When I wrote it, the play wasn’t set anywhere and didn’t have a title. A friend suggested Muswell Hill sounded like a play title.”

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Jess, a successful accountant with a shaky marriage to a wannabe novelist, invites her ex-alcoholic sister, a 60-year-old theatre director and a depressive cancer nurse for a meal. Betts admits the old dramatist’s trope of a dinner party is the ideal way to throw disparate folk together.

“Like anywhere in London Muswell Hill has big disparities of the wealthy living around the corner from people who haven’t got much. Capitalism breeds resentment, envy and inequality and I’ve put together people talking about house prices, and expensive holidays with those struggling to live in London - people who don’t fit in. Jess doesn’t seem to have any issues and fits into the system. Out of kindness she invites these various planets who gravitate around her and suffers all the madness going on. By the end this nice compliant, person is questioning being obedient to the system and being good all the time.”

The distancing dependence upon technology also features in the play, inspired by a night in a London pub when Betts noticed scores of 30-somethings on their phones barely talking to each other.

“It was the night of the Haiti earthquake and the couples were talking out of the side of their mouths while tapping away on their phones. As news of 100,000 thousand dead filtered through, people were having conversations with half an eye on the news in the way of people in a wealthy city connecting with a disaster in the third world but not connecting with it emotionally or with each other.”

Alan Ayckbourn gave Betts’ his break - staging his first play - and the heightened social realism of Muswell Hill, where we see the guests retreating to the kitchen reacting to this awful party, is pure Ayckbourn territory although Betts insists “darker and more mischievous.”

“I choose characters often based on people I have known, put them in a situation, then try to give them their own life and let them decide what happens. It gives the play a spontaneous feeling, without having a message. I hope this doesn’t have a message.”

Muswell Hill is at The Park Theatre in Finsbury Park until March 14. Bookings on or call 02078706876.

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