God of Carnage review – deliciously savage satire still has plenty of bite

Yasmina Reza’s feted satire of two couples locked in passive aggressive combat inside a tasteful French living room smashed the facade of smugly civilised middle-class life when it premiered in 2008.

Fifteen years later, under Nicholai La Barrie’s deft direction, it plays out like a comedy of manners, damning in its portrait of bourgeois parenthood and marriage (“the most dreadful ordeal god can inflict,” says a character of the latter) albeit without the feral, growling quality of the original.

Alan (Ariyon Bakare) and Annette (Dinita Gohil) have been invited into the home of Veronica (Freema Agyeman) and Michael (Martin Hutson) to discuss a violent incident between their 11-year-old sons: the former couple’s son, Ferdinand, has attacked Bruno with a stick and knocked out two front teeth. Rather like Abigail’s Party, the minors remain off stage while their parents behave like spoiled children.

The play’s initial clenched-jaw aggression, and later its savagery, is stylised here so that Annette gesticulates grandly and Michael does an almost exaggerated impression of an easy-going guy. Wealth manager Annette stands awkwardly at attention as the arrogant Alan breaks off to talk urgent business on his eternally buzzing phone.

Using Christopher Hampton’s translation, the production seems played emphatically as a French play, with all the formalities in the language left in, including the “madams” and “sirs”. Culturally it seems French too with conversation segueing quickly into philosophical ruminations on life and western civilisation.

The performances – slick across the board – are arch, even hammy, with big, swinging arm gestures and exaggerated movement. This brings heightened theatricality, and when racism rears its head in the plotline, there is a sense of remove between characters and actors, given the play’s diverse casting. Even Lily Arnold’s achingly elegant design gestures at realism but does not quite embody it, with prissy white sofas and a drinks trolley to hint at a living room but a sea of abstract black space beyond.

A violin flutters atmospherically at times of rattling tension and a cello rumbles in moments of surfacing rage. There is a certain deliciousness in seeing these characters unravel as they hit the gin and shoot their pseudo-polite salvoes. The play’s punches do not land as hard as they might, although there is a clear sense that these self-centred characters have all but lost sight of little Ferdinand and Bruno.