James Norton is already an old hand at playing charming gentlemen, but he’s cast off the plummy accent and dashing suit to play a troubled millennial in Belleville, a gripping play by acclaimed US playwright Amy Herzog.
It’s almost Christmas in Belleville, an “up-and-coming” Parisian neighbourhood, and a young American couple are about to spend their first Christmas alone. In the opening scene Abby (Imogen Poots) walks in on her husband Zack (Norton) masturbating to porn. An argument ensues that is clearly about much more than his indiscretion.
Zack is a doctor who researches infant disease for a charity; Abby’s a failed actor who spends her days teaching yoga and calling her widowed father. Abby always wanted to come to Paris, but the reality of life in not-so-beautiful Belleville is anything but romantic.
She’s miserable, mercurial and trying to come off anti-depressants. He’s a little more likeable, but beneath his easy smile something is amiss: he’s edgy and sucks hungrily on spliffs. It transpires he’s four months behind on the rent and his wife doesn’t know.
The only other characters are their easygoing landlord Alioune (Malachi Kirby) and his frosty wife (Faith Alaba). Alioune reluctantly issues Zack with an ultimatum: pay the rent by Friday or get out.
Norton is utterly compelling as a man on the edge. As his lies unravel, Zack grows desperate and reveals a darker side.
Poots is equally brilliant as Abby, who’s so caught up in her own unhappiness, she fails to notice her husband’s strange behaviour. Poots doesn’t waste a sentence as she flounces around the stage – angry, funny and terribly cruel by turns. Between the blazing rows are fleeting moments of tenderness and affection.
All the action takes place within 24 hours in their small, messy flat and director Michael Longhurst ratchets up the tension. Pulsing, unsettling music between the scenes adds to the sense of foreboding. At times it’s hard to watch, but impossible to tear your eyes away.
This is the UK debut of Belleville and the Donmar’s intimate auditorium is perfect for this claustrophobic play. At only an hour and 40 minutes with no interval, it’s short but packs a punch. There were audible gasps and whimpers from the audience when their drunken night out spirals out of control.
It could be taken as an indictment of indulged, self-obsessed millennials, but it’s also a heart-wrenching, stomach-churning portrayal of a marriage in crisis.