Amanda Muggleton brings high energy and a natural confidence to the King’s Head Theatre through her performance as Deborah Martin in Roger Hall’s The Book Club. However, sadly, Hall’s play is elitist and exclusive: to anyone who does not belong to a white, middle-class and middle age demographic, there is little to relate to here.
When her children leave home and her husband has a mid-life crisis and takes to marathon training, Deborah Martin finds herself with an empty nest and no-one to share it with. One of her friends talks her into joining their book club, something she had tried to avoid for years, but the book club is an awakening for Debs, in more ways than one.
In Muggleton’s first appearance at the Kings Head Theatre since her debut whilst studying at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, she was completely at home in the environment and did everything to make the audience feel welcome and relaxed. Muggleton’s comedic background was evident from the outset as she felt at ease to drop in and out of the script to interact with audience members and create what felt like a two-way conversation.
She leapt (quite literally at some points!) from one scene to another with a swiftness and focus, taking the audience with her as her story developed. The pace of the performance did not falter once and Nadia Tass’ direction meant that the energy of the play remained on a high through making the most of Muggleton’s confident physicality and using the whole stage.
For a one-woman show, The Book Club featured a multitude of characters, all of which Muggleton tackled with a real dynamism. Anyone who has taken up a hobby or joined a group of some sort will be well aware of the array of characters and personalities you meet. On one hand this can be seen in the women who frequent the Book Club, from the rugged Welsh Millie to the pompous, snorting Meredith. On the other hand, despite Muggleton’s talents, Hall’s characters are one-dimensional and stereotypical. With any other actress the basic characterisation of these women would have flat lined, but Muggleton used her natural comedy to enlarge these characters into entertaining caricatures.
There were a few nice softer moments in the performance where the lights dimmed into an almost spotlight. One standout moment was when Muggleton, as Millie, discussed her husbands Asperger’s. More of these sincere moments, these insights into the lives of the women who frequent the Book Club would have made for a more dynamic and varied performance.
Shaun Gurton’s set design felt warm and inviting, a clear reflection of Deb’s personality. Through using the thrust staging to create a focal point around the bookcase Gurton focused the attention of the audience onto the play’s themes and gave Muggleton plenty of space to perform her physical escapades.
However, for a play that thrives on one woman’s love and appreciate of literature it was a real disappointment that the majority of the books on the shelves were print outs of the spine, made even more obvious through the repetition of some of the titles. Despite this, the rest of the details, including Richard Dinnen’s warm lighting design, a comfortable leather sofa and a Persian-esque rug, created a welcoming atmosphere that asked the audience to relax into the two-way conversation Muggleton created.
Despite Muggleton’s brilliant performance I found myself sitting there feeling like I was missing out on the big joke. Surrounded by a seemingly privileged audience in which the majority of its members were at least twice, sometimes three times, my age and all in hysterics I felt slightly marginalised. Yes, a lot of the life experiences Deb’s discussed were not ones I had experienced myself, but the joy of theatre is experiencing and witnessing things alien to you. The show is aimed at a specific white, middle-class, populist demographic which is further solidified through Tass’ Director’s Notes where she talks about book clubs being for ‘women of a certain age and class’, sadly it seems that this ideology has also crossed over to the stage.
The play required a certain level of knowledge and understanding of cultural references, describing characters by their author preferences such as Margaret Atwood and seeking familiarity with audience members that may have friends involved in Opera societies. Even as a well-read individual, certain references went over my head and the chuckles from individual audience members made me feel inferior. The greatest laughs came out of the audience members that could relate to Deb’s middle class lifestyle – but sadly that results in your audience being restricted.
Quite a lot of Hall’s comedy stems from sexual innuendos and by the end of the show once you’ve heard one penis joke, you’ve heard them all. When the comedy didn’t surround sex, it came off the back of contemporary references that director Nadia Tass had placed into the script, such as mentions of Donald Trump. These modern references felt contrived.
On the whole, Muggleton’s performance is jubilant and fun; she has a confidence and skill which makes the audience feel comfortable, even if the play itself is clichéd and marginalising.