I love the rumour that Yasmina Reza, who wrote the long-running West End hit Art, and now God of Carnage, does not know she writes comedies. That would make Art, which starred a pretentious piece of art, a pretentious piece of art in itself - as you might expect from a French playwright with a philosophical bent. But Art, while making some interesting observations about what happens when our friends betray our idea of whom they are, was hilarious. Either the translator Christopher Hampton, the director Matthew Warchus and a succession of starry casts saved Reza from herself, or her line that she does not write comedy is a sophisticated French joke.
Her new play, God of Carnage, translated and directed by the same team, works brilliantly as a comedy. The set-up is as deceptive and as simple as Art's. The parents of a boy who has bashed up another kid in his class visit the parents of his victim. They are Parisian bourgeoisie, determined to be fair and reasonable but they cannot entirely turn the other cheek. Their apologies and their acceptance of apologies are not sincere. What starts as a civilised conversation over a home-baked clafoutis turns into a booze-fuelled brawl and the worst evening of everyone's lives.
In an act of not-so-passive aggression, the mother of the miscreant throws up over the coffee table. Tulips bought from an organic shop are tossed across the room. A mobile phone ends up in the vase. The mother of the victim physically attacks her husband. It is mayhem. It is carnage. If you want to see physical comedy but can't take farce, this is the ticket to buy. Enjoy particularly Tamsin Greig, so slender and graceful, yet forced into such contortions of rage that she sometimes looks like a hairpin that is about to split in two.
The point, obviously, is that we are all schoolkids, little savages, the sum total of our ids and our egos, and that civilisation is merely a veneer. But this simple point is worked through so cleverly that by the end of the evening everything, including theatre-going, looks like a feeble, friable lick of paint over chaos and self-interest.
The father of the bully, Alain, played by a wonderfully sardonic Ralph Fiennes, is the most unlikeable character. He is a lawyer - what could be more respectable? Except he is continually taking calls in which he advises a client, a rich pharmaceutical company, to lie about the side effects of a new drug. Alain is a cynic, happily volunteering that his 11-year-old, Ferdinand, is a savage. But his cynicism is also a paper-thin mask. He may not care about his son or his wife, but when his mobile phone is thrown into the water, he sobs like a schoolboy. "It's brand new. It took hours to set up."
Véronique, a fierce, self-righteous Janet McTeer, is the character one might have most sympathy for. Not only is she the mother of injured Bruno, but she is passionate about Africa and has written on Darfur. And yet, to write a book that describes chaos is, in this play, merely another futile gesture of rationalisation. Véronique's composure breaks down when the Tamsin Greig character, Annette, vomits all over her Kokoschka first edition. She wails in pain.
Her husband, Michel, suggests a quick spray with Mr Clean, a dab of perfume, and a hairdryer. A lot of the play has Michel, the earthy and exasperated Ken Stott, trying to clean things up. Once he turns on his wife, marriage is shown to be another lie, no more than a truce in the war between the sexes, a war conducted by men who are sometimes willing to admit their true natures, and women who will deny their uncouthness to the death. "Not you, Darjee, not you," Michel sneers at his wife, "you're a fully evolved woman, you're skid-resistant."
As the 90 minutes skid by, the violence crescendoes to a point when it stops being either very funny or interesting. Yet the play continues to expand in your mind. This extraordinarily hard-working cast makes it succeed on both levels, comical and philosophical. "Clafoutis," asks Michel, attempting small talk, "is it a cake or a tart?" But it doesn't matter what you call it. The proof is in the eating. This play is delicious.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times
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