The Wightman Theatre’s new resident company is currently staging its premiere production; a double bill of clever, one-act, absurdist plays.
Brian Friel is something of a disciple of Anton Checkov, having translated ‘Uncle Vanya’ and ‘The Three Sisters’ into English. 15 years ago, he created a new addition to the Checkov canon by taking one character from each play and arranging for them to meet in a Moscow café two decades later.
And so, Uncle Vanya’s niece Sonia is sipping tea fortified with vodka and pouring over papers when Andrey, the brother of The Three Sisters, strolls in with a beaten-up violin case. They have evidently met the previous evening and pick up on that conversation, not all of which, it transpires, was entirely truthful.
Actor-manager Adrian Monahan plays Andrey, and the look on his face when he realises his boastfulness is being rumbled is priceless. His character is proud and ebullient, even though his wife Natasha has walked out on him and he can only afford cabbage soup. This contrasts very well with Holly King’s refined but naturalistic portrayal of Sonia, as she sensitively describes the long drawn out death of the Uncle she so loved. Both are fearful of a lean and lonely future. Both are waiting in hope. Both are yearning for the other to admire them, but the faintest glimmer of a friendship dies amidst the deceit.
It’s an intriguing idea, though this production is surprisingly static. I recall only three or four big moves; which works against the golden rule of Theatre In The Round that insists actors keep moving so we can all see their faces.
The actors are highly professional and well paired. The performances are strong and sturdy and their timing impeccable. In fact, there are more well-held pauses in the ‘Afterplay’ than in the Pinter that follows.
It’s 60 years since Harold Pinter wrote the play that made food elevators fashionable. ‘The Dumb Waiter’ is set in a Birmingham bedroom (with a troublesome toilet) over a ghostly restaurant. Common crooks Ben and Gus are waiting to go out on a job; a job that involves guns. The clueless duo are like two goldfish trying to rationalise the world beyond the bowl. Their only conduit is the spooky serving lift and, like so many men in that period of compulsory National Service, they are frustratingly obliged to blindly follow orders.
The variation on Pinter’s intentions is that, perforce, Gus is played by female Holly. So, brotherly bonding is blown out of the water and replaced by hints of domestic violence…whilst the struggles on the single bed also assume a new ambiguity. This is interesting territory of which more could be made. Are they merely colleagues or perhaps man and wife, which would make the traitorous denouement rather more shocking?
Whilst they wait, they wittily bicker and take the micky out of the contents of the Daily Express. Pinter writes some good jokes, not all of which are nailed, and some of the more venomous lines lack menace. On the other hand the Pinter ‘feel’ is perfectly preserved and director Robin Case has really captured the edgy rawness that must have been felt by the first night audience of all those years ago.
It’s an evening for the connoisseur, rather than the casual theatre-goer. A working knowledge of Checkov would be useful, but it’s a jolly good introduction to Pinter.