THE MISANDRIST – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – this’ll tickle your funny bone and (possibly) make your eyes water

Elf Lyons and Nicholas Armfield, photograph by Charles Flint


by Lisa Carroll

Directed by Bethany Pitts

Arcola Theatre, London – until 10 June 2023

A misandrist, according to the dictionary, is a person “who dislikes, despises or is strongly prejudiced against men”, so effectively the counterpart equivalent to a misogynist, although as a word it’s far less frequently used. Funny that.

Near the end of Lisa Carroll’s terrific new play, Elf Lyons, an incandescent presence and half of the cast of Bethany Pitts’s production, delivers a coruscating speech about the chokehold men have had over women’s lives for far too long that, in its erudition and magnificent rage, is reminiscent of Jodie Comer in the West End and now Broadway sensation Prima Facie. It’s the same sense of articulated weariness and propulsive fury that renders it almost impossible to just sit there and listen. It’s a stirring moment, an aria of indignation written and performed with such riveting precision and attack that it’s almost possible to overlook that it doesn’t feel fully integrated into what otherwise is a thoroughly engrossing, character-driven piece of comedy-drama.

If Lyons’s Rachel is truly a misandrist, she can pretty much justify it – a drunken, verbally abusive father, a cheating, blame-shifting ex – though it’s sad to reflect that a sizeable proportion of women watching this play may well have experienced at least one of these toxic male figures in their lived experience. If Rachel’s history is not particularly remarkable, her subsequent reaction to it is entirely understandable, at least at first, and Carroll’s writing and Lyons’s acting make acute psychological sense. She’s coolly defensive, extremely witty, and definitely off men, that is until she meets puppyish Nick.

Where Rachel is acid, Nick is honey: an open-faced, non-predatory charmer with a cracking sense of humour and a tinge of social anxiety that chimes well with Rachel’s own. Nicholas Armfield, in a tremendous, exquisitely well-rounded performance, invests him with a bouncy niceness that never cloys and an undertow of melancholy that suggests he’s all too aware that ‘nice guys’ often finish last. Armfield further impresses as Rachel’s salacious, functioning alcoholic female boss (hilarious) and her definitely non-functioning alcoholic father (chillingly real), but the chemistry between his Nick and Lyons’s Rachel feels wonderfully authentic, despite the obvious mismatches between the characters as they start a jokey, casual affair.

So far so raunchy RomCom, but when one of their sex sessions takes a turn for the unexpected, the play goes seriously off piste and turns into very much its own savagely funny, disturbing beast, as Rachel and Nick get into the unconventional sexual practise of pegging. For the uninitiated, pegging is where a woman straps on a fake phallus and anally penetrates a man, and there is an astonishing moment when the curtains at the back of Cara Evans’s set (which is equal parts combat arena, stand-up comedy stage and lurid sex club) open to reveal a giant neon penis and an eye-watering array of sex toys that remain in full view for the rest of the evening.

Carroll explores Nick’s reticence and Rachel’s enthusiasm with a clarity and sensitivity that deepens and darkens as a fun add-on to their sex life morphs into an obsession. You also realise while watching that the driving force, particularly for Rachel, is increasingly less about sex and more about power. Outrageously funny becomes awkward, even sinister, by stealth, and it’s all fleshed out with explosive, loaded dialogue and really magnificent acting.

Pitts’s staging, each scene amusingly having a summarising caption beamed up on the stage wall (“Meet-cute (gross)”, “Vibe killer”, “You pegged my soul”) has some gleefully meta moments and skilfully balances comic bliss with genuine unease. Watching the sunshine drain out of Armfield’s adorable Nick is hard to watch, largely because it is so brilliantly conveyed, just as his swaggering self-congratulation after first penetration is as joyful as it’s absurd, and Lyons makes vivid Rachel’s less admirable traits yet, almost miraculously, never forfeits sympathy for her. Carroll’s writing is crisp, contemporary and painfully honest, shot through with belly laughs and moments of raw shock. Structurally, the play meanders a little as it flirts with a number of dramatic genres and feels as though it could have benefitted from maybe one more draft to be something really special, but it’s never less than engaging. At its most dramatic and most impressive, it recalls Patrick Marber’s Closer in its unflinching frankness and urbane wit.

All in all, this is a very satisfying couple of hours of theatre. There’s nothing like a trip to Dalston to broaden your horizons.

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