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Casual Encounters

3 starsReviewed by Richard Stamp
Underground Venues
8-9 Jul 6pm to 6:50pm, 14 Jul 2pm to 2:50pm, 15 Jul 6pm to 6:50pm

“What have I let myself in for?” reads the heartfelt question I scribbled shortly after the lights went down, right at the top of my reporter’s notebook.  What I’d let myself in for was a play about swinging – complete with vampish mini-skirts, pink fluffy handcuffs, and an outbreak of comedy cross-dressing.  As the old line goes, though, it’s all done in the best possible taste; so the surprisingly-mature audience around me giggled naughtily at the innuendo.

But Casual Encounters is more thoughtful than that introduction makes it sound. In due course, the script delivers a properly startling plot swerve, together with a few interesting thoughts about the different types of hold we all have over each other. Middle-aged couple James and Jennifer are first-time swingers, hoping to bring some excitement back to a fading love life. It’s clear that James wears the trousers in this relationship – well, until the inevitable moment when he takes them off – but soon events are spiralling out of his control, and he finds himself trapped by the fear of ridicule in a situation that denudes him of both his power and his clothes.

The trouble is, along the way, the play dabbles with a lot of themes – and it doesn’t quite hit the mark on any of them. It starts as an amusing comedy of manners, has a few elements of farce, switches into being something close to a thriller and ends with a biting indictment of our fragmented society. None of this is inherently a problem, but the style of the production needs to be better matched to its shifting genres: a scene with a policeman, for example, could have been much funnier if the pace hadn’t been quite so slow.

All the principal actors are strong, but I’d particularly highlight Sandy Easby as the long-suffering Jennifer. She nicely captures her character’s squirming middle-class horror, but brings out a sharper edge when James’s plans go wrong. I’d have to say, though, that some of the treatment meted out to Jennifer crossed the line for me; at times it was genuinely degrading and uncomfortable to watch, in a way which wasn’t entirely justified by the tenor of the plot.

I do think that Casual Encounters could use a bit more focus, a little more clarity about exactly what it’s trying to be. In the meantime, though, it’s an entertaining eyebrow-raiser, risqué enough to be memorable but not too risky for the discerning Buxton crowd. As James discovers, it does pay to be careful what you let yourself in for. But I’m glad I gave this one a whirl.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Buxton 2013.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.