Watching Canadian playwright Jason Hall’s new play, inspired by his purchase of a flat, is like being told a story by a friend who thinks it’s absolutely hilarious. The problem is that it isn’t as funny as it could be and the punch-line, when it comes, isn’t justified by the set-up.
Number 11 (Craig Gazey) is a first-time buyer who has just entered into a shared-ownership scheme in a plush apartment building. Frequently crass, usually drunk and with a foot that’s only ever inches from his mouth, he is the complete opposite of Number 12 (Emily Head). She is a brittle blond with a tight smile, a bespoke Mondrian doormat and an aversion to chit-chat. While he’s eager to get to know her, she can’t wait to close the door on him.
A talented physical actor, Gazey imbues Number 11 with a shuffling awkwardness that (almost) takes the edge off his boorishness and the borderline bigotry of his views. Together, he and Head have a nicely prickly chemistry; two-stepping between advance and retreat during their many encounters in the small stretch of hallway that constitutes the set.
For much of its running time, Third Floor plays like a sitcom – and there are some nicely-observed moments of awkwardness that will be familiar to anyone who has felt obliged to make small-talk with a neighbour. Fewer detailed discussions about the merits of shared-ownership wouldn’t have gone amiss; but as the mismatched pair bond over how to deal with the growing pile of rubbish outside number 10, most of the jokes hit their target.
Things go wrong when the play jumps genres and lands clumsily in thriller territory. Chucking in a few Hitchcock references beforehand – Number 11 is a big fan of Marnie and Rear Window – is no substitute for proper story development. We aren’t given enough of a narrative foothold for the introduction of a home-invasion scenario to feel anything other than bolted on and about 20 minutes too late.
This clunkiness isn’t helped by director Russell Labey’s decision to obscure the play’s few early hints about its destination (for example, Number 11’s ‘joke’ about burning down a fellow student’s flat at university) beneath a tone of soap-opera frothiness. Ultimately, instead of papering over Third Floor’s cracks, too often this production draws attention to them.