God of Carnage: Yasmina Reza’s sharp-eyed comedy of parental manners is sadly blunted

Dinita Gohil, Freema Agyeman, Ariyon Bakare and Martin Hutson in God of Carnage at the Lyric, Hammersmith
Dinita Gohil, Freema Agyeman, Ariyon Bakare and Martin Hutson in God of Carnage at the Lyric, Hammersmith - The Other Richard

The critics didn’t lose their heads 15 years ago, when they – mostly – adulated Yasmina Reza’s sharp-eyed comedy of unravelling parental manners, couched in the bourgeois refinement of her native Paris but (fairly) universally applicable. The calibre of the cast – which included Ralph Fiennes and Tamsin Greig – and the fact that the play opened straight in the West End attested to everyone’s confidence in its entertainment value. And though the English language version by Christopher Hampton only ran for a limited season (in contrast with Reza’s mega-hit Art), it recouped, won an Olivier and later hopped over to Broadway.

The simple, canny scenario remains eminently relatable: two sets of parents try to resolve, but come to regressive blows over, an incident in which an 11-year-old boy, Ferdinand, has inflicted dental damage on one of his peers, Bruno, with a stick, in a park. Bruno’s folks, Michael and Veronica, invite Ferdinand’s ma and pa, Alan and Annette, over for a slice or three of clafoutis and an “adult” chat. Clashing protective instincts and outlooks aside, the opportunities for an amicable denouement are further diminished by marital discord and tension-uncorking booze.

It’s skittish stuff, but if only director Nicholai La Barrie trusted the truth of the material more, and made less of a theatrical meal of it. Instead, the tone is laboriously declamatory, not understatedly uptight. Yes, the Lyric stage (the bijou setting here placed on a slow-revolve) is an exposed one for a chamber piece. But, for all the contrivances of the contretemps, Reza’s blade is blunted because such subtleties as her script possesses get trampled upon.

As the much-liked companion Martha in Doctor Who, Freema Agyeman managed to make hokum sound plausible; here, as Veronica, she makes ordinary lines sound stilted. She’s at her best when she goes fully histrionic but she’s still operating in a vacuum, her style barely correlating to those around her.

Playing the dodgy corporate lawyer Alan, Ariyon Bakare starts on too loud a note of suspicious aggression and can only over-egg it from there; he’s also saddled with decreasingly droll business around his “mobile phone” addiction. Despite a scene-stealing bout of vomiting, Dinita Gohil’s peeved Annette is under-obtrusive. Martin Hutson – endearingly nervy, but simmering with unpalatable views – has the comic measure of het-up host Michael, even if his maniacal natter about a callously dispatched hamster starts to pall.

A surprisingly strained night, then, which confirms there’s no easy path to box-office salvation: no matter how tried and tested the fare, there’s no such thing as a safe-bet.

Until Sept 30. Tickets: 020 8741 6850; lyric.co.uk