REVIEW: Two, Above The Arts ✭✭✭✭

Two by Jim Cartwright at Above The Arts
Photo: Piers Foley Photography

Shrapnel Theatre at Above the Arts
4 Stars

London possesses many pub theatres currently showing much fine work old and new; but the studio theatre Above the Arts just off Leicester Square is probably the only pub theatre where currently the bar and seats and customers are the realistic setting for the play itself. When I arrived I looked around at the seats organized around a semi-cleared space in front of the bar and asked the barman where I should sit to best advantage. He shrugged and said ‘Anywhere: you’ll be right in the midst of the action.’ And so it engrossingly proved.

TWO was first performed at the Young Vic some twenty-five years ago, and was one of Jim Cartwright’s early successes. It is a fast moving, virtuosic two-hander in which the actors begin behind the bar as the landlord and landlady of a pub in the North of England before continually reinventing themselves in real time as a sequence of twelve customers on one eventful evening. What we see is in essence several character miniatures in which mood and tone shift rapidly; sometimes these are monologues and in other cases dialogues between couples. The twelve patrons are interspersed with reprise appearances by the landlords, as their own relationship becomes increasingly fractious, before a final duet between the two of them at closing time unravels poignantly much that was oblique and implied hitherto.

I wondered in advance whether the play might show its age, but in this performance the quality of the writing came up very freshly and more than justified the awards given a quarter century ago. Just as with the contemporaneous ‘My Night with Reg’, it is the lively, wry humour, economy of character-building and aching pain of the dialogue that immediately commands attention. The contrasting human dramas sketched out here with deft lightness of touch carry a conviction that makes it irrelevant that there are no mobile phones and that no one has ordered a Double Drambuie in any pub known to me for a very long time. In texture and tone the dramaturgy is reminiscent of two writers, different on the surface, but close underneath: Terence Davies and Terence Rattigan. This play has scenes that evoke the tough-minded community solidarity and gritty, grating domestic strife you find in Davies, while also offering studies of wan loneliness shading into expressions of stoic despair and desperation that are fully worthy of the Rattigan of ‘Separate Tables’, to which it is formally indebted too. Many of the qualities that have distinguished Cartwright’s later work are already fully in evidence here.

But the real success of the piece depends as much on the two actors themselves, both as individuals and as a partnership. Their performances require many rapid changes of costume, demeanour and accent for the array of locals depicted while all the while also carefully building up the simmering hostility and inherent loneliness of the couple at the centre of the action. In 1990 two well-known actors from Brookside were a great success in the first production, and similar laurels go this time to Jamie Shelton and Chelsea Halfpenny, both from Emmerdale, who negotiate the technical and emotional challenges posed with rare skill and grace. As the twelve characters they engage convincingly with the audience (treated as other punters in the pub), and inhabit the different personalities with carefully distinctive accents, mannerisms and body language. With only the minimal changes of costume, hair-style and make-up everything relies on the skills of the actors and in this respect they triumphed. As the central couple they carefully accumulate detail in their performances so that when the revelation comes in the final scene of why they are estranged it has all the more impact and power to affect the audience without a sense of manipulation.

It is invidious to single out particular cameos from this uniformly excellent gallery of portraits, but the most lastingly impressive characterisations to my eyes were of painful self-loathing and bullying cruelty respectively. Halfpenny’s portrayal of a drunk and desperate mistress, seeking to confront her lover and his wife in the pub, had real depth. She captured beautifully the humiliating shadow lands inhabited by the woman who will never be the wife, forced despite herself always to think of the needs of others. And for Shelton, perhaps his highest moment of the evening came in the ungrateful role of an obsessive, insecure, bullying, ultimately abusive husband, determined to find fault with his wife’s every word and action. This scene had menace and realism and produced one of those pauses of concentrated silence when you know an audience is wholly engaged with character and action.

I had a slight reservation about the handling of the final scene. This provides a powerful coda where the writer and the actors have to operate at full throttle and cast aside the delicate shades and nuances of the earlier sections. Without giving away the plot sequence, it is perhaps enough to say that the tone of the writing suddenly shifts into the eviscerating mode of conflict between couples you find in Edward Albee. The cast and director (Darren RL Gordon) decided to play the material much more slowly than the earlier naturalistic dialogue between the two lead characters, which made the scene seem almost operatic, especially in the long pauses. While this gave extra weight and significance to the quarrel, and the reasons for their festering antipathy, I still felt this was a mistake. The dialogue would have had even more shock and impact hurtling to the final stoic conclusion without this deliberate playing for gravitas; and it still would still have contrasted tonally with the lighter, fleet-of-foot earlier sections. In musical terms, this play is really a theme with a sequence of delightfully contrasted variations, and the final scene should still be proportionate with that overall structure.

Ultimately, TWO is a very fine night out at the theatre that zips through its eighty-minute length in no time, leaving you full of admiration at such detailed building of narrative and character with rare economy of means and a wide emotional palette. The revival is fully deserved and richly rewarding on every level.

You will want to stay to buy a drink from the very real bar at the end….

TWO runs at Above The Arts until 22 April 2015.

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