Belleville review: A compelling that's marvellously macabre, if slightly self-indulgent

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Imogen Poots and James Norton in Belleville

Donmar Warehouse

According to Abby, a 29-year-old American in Paris, the worst thing her parents ever did is tell her she could do anything she wanted. With the expectation of academic achievement lifted, all she had to do was concentrate on being happy. So whose fault is it when we follow our foggy dreams only to find they’re visceral nightmares?

These questions and more are, well, not answered exactly, but explored through this domestic drama which takes place entirely in a claustrophobic cubbyhole in Belleville, a multi-cultural neighbourhood on the outskirts of Paris.

Abby moved to support her husband Zack, a Medecins Sans Frontieres doctor treating children with Aids. Deprived of any such honourable purpose, Abby stays at home popping anti-depressants when she’s not teaching yoga or skipping French language classes, causing mild offence to their Muslim landlord by asking him what he does for Christmas.

Among the French, Americans are “strangers in a strange land.” As Abby points out: “That superior thing they do, it’s very convincing.”

The play works best when it’s operating as a cultural satire, or documenting the passive aggressive nature of marital strife. Its rapid descent into high melodrama in the last 20 minutes, however, is guilty of the same sin as its anti-heroes; self-indulgence.

One can’t help feeling that the constant introspection, the raking over of trivial historical slights, could have been exchanged for more quality time with the only other couple in the play, Alioune and Amina as the landlord and his wife, who had the potential to be an effective foil.

The tension, on the other hand, is spot on, and there’s a deep unease rumbling behind every marital spat. At its best, Belleville is both gripping and marvellously macabre.