7 September 2016
The delicate introspection of Terence Davies' thoughtful films of working class life in past decades meets Mike Leigh's powerfully understated theatrical drama of domestic tragedy in this curious hybrid of a one-act play by writer-director, Joe Wenborne. In Mike Leopold's handsomely realistic design (exquisitely lit by Adam King) – a precise and very solid-looking box set that seems to belong in the West End rather than a small fringe theatre above a pub – in just 80 minutes or so, we see the hours, months and years fly past as two very ordinary people live through the aftermath of an emotionally tumultuous event.
Rose (Linda Clark) and David (Steven Arnold) are the only characters who appear, yet when they speak of others, such is the deep realism of their portrayal of battling mother- and son-in-law, we expect their living room or kitchen-diner to be suddenly filled with their presence. This is where the similarity with Mike Leigh is perhaps at its strongest: the sturdy, simple reality of their world seems to belie strange, barely grasped, let alone understood, forces that surge through it, pushing them first this way, then that. The years of experience of both these actors in front of the camera play no small part in this achievement: amongst other work, both are veterans of ‘Coronation Street', in whose repertory company they got to know each other, and they are adept at delineating the narrative of some local catastrophe with gestures as minute as a shrug of the shoulder or the slightest inflection of the voice. Equally, their combined extensive experience in all kinds of theatre gives them the certainty with which to approach and present these characters before our eyes and ears. Clark herself is re-visiting a role she workshopped six years ago, and which is now bringing back in a stronger, more resolute manner.
The splendid appropriateness of this here is that the terrible occurrence to which they are both – in their usually contrary ways – reacting, has occurred off-stage and in fact has come to its end immediately before the action of the play begins. Even though a lot of conventional ‘narrative' then follows, those conventional happenings really don't concern us nearly as much as observing these two hurt people live through the protracted ‘shock-wave' after the earlier tragedy.
In addition to directing unobtrusively, Wenborne writes his cast dialogue which is never still: his focus switches constantly from plain, spare utterance, into sprightly native wit (with many admirably stylish turns of phrase), crying, laughter, shouts and silences. These, we feel, are usually very taciturn people, not given to talking about their feelings. Accident, however, has thrown them together in a way that they can hardly avoid confronting a succession of different moods and reflections, articulating their response to them in whatever apparently random or haphazard manner springs most readily to hand.
Inter-cut with these scenes are, and here the reference must surely be to Terence Davies' epics of ordinariness, with the lush, comforting melodies of Music for Pleasure, or Radio 2, each as fitting to the surrounding action as if personally selected by Jimmy Young (but the superb sound here is by Peter Dyos). This, like all the other details of this subtle, deeply intelligent production, reminds us that the world we are seeing and hearing is one that is over, it is in the past, complete and finished. That we do not instantly grasp that message, however, is also a fundamental part of the story it has to tell.
Possibly, this might be felt to be too muted for some tastes. As the cast themselves note, this is not grand, heroic theatre. Nor is it a complex psychological investigation of fragmented personalities. It is an honest portrait of what really happens in the world, and – taken on its own terms – it is as fine a piece of work of this type as you are likely to see this season. Clark and Arnold have played panto together, and this is altogether a far more serious and darker world, but it is still written in the language of archetypes and convention, as much as most people's conversation is, too. Wenborne may not be knowing and analytical in his deconstruction of his material, but he is direct, frank and sensitive in its representation.
Above all, this is a drama that might occur in anyone's life: the sheer everyday nature of the story is in fact its raison d'etre. While it may not bark for attention and excite us with a stream of diversions, hours after you leave the theatre you notice that its gentle but lucid presence is still with you, shedding some scattered light on the great mysteries of living and dying, of loving and hating, of despair and hope.
Broken Strings is at the Tabard Theatre until 24 September 2016