Review: Misunderstood? at Royal Court Studio **1/2

Remember the classic self-help book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus which explained how the sexes spoke different languages – and how to better understand each other?

In Barbara Phillips’ relationship play Misunderstood?, the second stage offering from Liverpool-based Boisterous Theatre Company, it’s less talking in different tongues and more not talking at all that causes problems.

Phillips and director Miriam Mussa present us with three couples, all of whom spend the majority of the 1hr 15min running time at cross purposes – or more often just cross – with each other.

The women, Leila, Kelly and Patsy, are all sisters (a dynamic which is ripe for a bit of back story) while the men are their disparate other halves. All have varying strength of characters.

Things aren’t going well for the couples – the yawning divide in communication and understanding mirrored in the division of action on stage; boys on one side, girls on the other. Will they ever find common middle ground? And how much do we really care?

In reality it’s an effort to fully engage with and root for them because they’re mostly pretty unappealing; either vapid, posturing self-absorbed shopaholics or ducking and diving misogynist chancers making mysterious big bucks on the wrong side of the law.

There’s really only one sympathetic character on stage, and that’s Terrell Gellineau’s hard-working mum-of-three Leila, whose attempts to better herself and give her children something to aspire to are an alien concept to her feckless, petulant man-child other half Nathan (Julian Gill).

Gellineau and Gill, and their on-off relationship, are the beating three-dimensional heart of the tale around which the other characters orbit in frustratingly two-dimensional fashion.

This is a play with songs, the lyrics by Phillips and the music by James Ritchie, and Gellineau and Gill also have a couple of rather lovely original numbers between them – Gill showing off a wonderfully mellow singing voice.

Zain Salim, who was in both casts of Bouncers for Boisterous last year, reprises the narrator role which he first filled as a teenager when Misunderstood? was staged by Phillips’ Positive Impact organisation.

The part has a distinctly Shakespearean feel, with its rhyming prologue and epilogue, and as the action progresses Salim eases in to a Puckish, knowing commentary.

He also gets one very funny musical scene, injecting some much-needed fizzing energy into what can seem at other times rather halting and ponderous proceedings.

The production aims to evoke a TV soap opera feel on stage, and there are moments where it does.

But at present the action needs more drive and a few more punctuated duh-duh-duh moments to fully realise the potential of the drama lurking within Phillips’ plot.