Thanks to the phenomenon that was Friends, Matthew Perry will forever be known as Chandler Bing. But in The End of Longing, both written by and starring Perry, he goes some way to distance himself from the iconic character – although it’d be wrong to say Chandler isn’t there to some degree, somewhere in the periphery.
It’s because of this fact that fans of the ’90s sitcom will find lots to enjoy here, though this isn’t just a show for those looking for a dose of Central Perk vibes. Indeed, if you go merely expecting a rehash of Friends completely, you’ll be taken by surprise; the four near-forty somethings who make up the cast here definitely aren’t Ross, Rachel and co., and this certainly isn’t a breezy afternoon at the local coffee house.
Instead, Jack, Stevie, Stephanie and Joseph are characters with serious issues, from minor insecurities to distinct foibles and huge faults; they’re real, gritty and facing problems that are both relatable and outlandish in their scope. They’re also foul-mouthed and hilarious – buoyed by Perry’s zinger of a script, which is full of wit and laugh-out-loud moments from the very beginning.
The End of Longing also feels very modern in its approach to telling its story. We flit between several locations throughout the piece (bars, bedrooms, hospital waiting rooms, convenience stores and places of worship), the staging sliding in and out of place to create new settings every few minutes. In doing so, director Lindsay Posner brings a filmic quality to the drama, which is aided both by the musical interludes that play between scene changes (like something out of a TV serial, though possibly too loud in some places), and Perry’s stylised dialogue: a tapestry of punchy, short scenes full of gags, jests and one-liners.
Further to this are the endless references to modern life – dating-by-text-message, Tinder, therapy (“Who isn’t in therapy these days?” quips one cast member at one point) – and the way the show seemingly manages to normalise issues such as casual sex, alcoholism and, even, prostitution.
All of the cast are on good form here, with great support from Lloyd Owen and Christina Cole as Joseph and Stevie, who offer bright humour and real lightness to the other, darker storyline (although they don’t get through the drama completely unscathed). Jennifer Mudge, meanwhile, particularly shines as Stephanie, the love interest for Perry’s leading man. However, none work as hard as Perry himself, who clearly wants to impress audiences: his character, Jack, certainly has the most dramatic story arc, and given what the tabloids have told us about Perry’s own alcoholism and addiction, the show goes some way to act as a window into his own recovery and treatment, hinting at slightly autobiographical undertones throughout.
Perhaps this is the biggest draw for The End of Longing: a chance to see inside Perry’s own dark past, albeit fictionalised and reworked for dramatic purposes. But whether you view this show as some version of therapy for the lead, or simply take it as being about four friends going through the motions during a particularly significant point in their life, it’s a neat piece of theatre; and more than that, it’s a markedly impressive debut from Perry both in terms of writing and acting, and well worth a look.
Book tickets for The End of Longing now at Ticketmaster.co.uk, showing at London’s Playhouse Theatre between 2 February – 14 May.