High-powered, middle-aged charity CEO meets young ambitious woman in a hotel bar to give her career advice? Uh oh. The premise of Alys Metcalf’s play, which opens Christopher Haydon’s first season as artistic director at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, feels like a story we all know depressingly well. Or, as Jia Tolentino put it when writing about the Weinstein fallout, “You were young and he was powerful: the story writes itself.” Surely we all know where this one’s going to go. Not to mention that the play’s title is Leopards, whose big claim to fame is not changing their spots.
Oh, and Niala (Saffron Coomber) sent her CV to Ben (Martin Marquez) several times... but he only agreed to the meeting when she attached her photo. Vom, right? On a set laden with those velvety, stylish but production line-esque Oliver Bonas scallop chairs, I gritted my teeth and waited for the predator to pounce.
Except, something is off from the start. Niala is confident and in control, and not forthcoming with questions about how to climb the career ladder. Ben is nervy and keeps mentioning his wife. By the time they move up to Niala’s hotel room, she seems to have a conquest in her sights – and it all seems to be getting a bit Christian Grey.
As Ben and Niala, Marquez and Coomber work as good foils to one another. He’s self-deprecating and dry, while she has a blunt, youthful boldness. “What’s the most feminist thing you’ve ever done?” she asks. “Um... let the door swing behind me in a woman’s face?” he replies.
Directed by Haydon and produced by Francesca Moody, who has a nose for great plays from Fleabag to Baby Reindeer, Leopards throws up some intriguing questions about hot button issues such as cancel culture. Metcalf is interested in how we convince ourselves we’re good, and if we can find a way back if we’ve done something bad. Her writing is often funny, and she particularly nails Ben’s boring prophet-like corporate spiel - “we destroy to evolve,” he says at one point. But the exploration of ‘issues’ sometimes comes at the expense of character; at one point it feels like we’re having witty repartee banged at us rather than watching two people engaged in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse.
And although it’s intriguing to watch a play that keeps scuppering our expectations, a late, melodramatic twist undermines what came before. As an intense two-hander, it’s hard not to feel that it might have benefited from a more intimate performance space than the Rose’s vast-feeling auditorium. But Metcalf is a writer with promise, who clearly wants to wrestle with knotty questions; I’ll look forward to seeing what she does next.
Until Sept 25, Rose Theatre; rosetheatre.org