DramaReviewSouth West

Krapp’s Last Tape – Cygnet Theatre, Exeter

Writer:Samuel Beckett
Director and Performer: James Elston
Reviewer: Lucy Corley

For audience members who, like this reviewer, are unused to Samuel Beckett’s plays, it takes a while to adjust to the understated stillness of Krapp’s Last Tape.

The slight sense of awkwardness in the auditorium is not helped by audio glitches – an unfortunate start to a show in which sound plays an essential role – which threaten to fracture the delicate sense of character emerging from performer James Elston’s incremental movements.

Yet despite a shaky start, Elston persists undeterred with this vulnerable, engaging production of Beckett’s one-man show that hovers between tragedy and black comedy. Hunched and barely moving, with grey hair blending into the dust on his trousers, watching Elston is like seeing a piece of slate come gradually to life. Seated at a table amid tangled heaps of newspaper and unspooled cassette tapes, the elderly Krapp slowly psyches himself up to listen to the dusty voice recordings he made 30 years ago.

As his 39-year-old voice booms from the tape machine, Krapp reacts to his past self’s disdainful self-importance with varying levels of mockery, approbative laughter and rage. Beckett’s script reveals snatches of Krapp’s younger lifeand highlights the gap between the voice he presents to the world and the anxieties he begrudgingly reveals.

Performing at Cygnet Theatre’s week-long festival featuring Devon-based theatre companies, Elston gives Krapp an oddly endearing quality, resisting the impulse to play too much for laughs and striking a balance between stylised and naturalistic. Moments of grotesque delight in gobbling down a banana or raucously recalling a childhood song are mixed with quiet anguish as he gropes for words that once rolled eloquently off his tongue.

A hemisphere of light from a lamp on stage increases the sense that we are witnessing what should go on behind closed doors, as Krapp experiments with what is left of his voice, alternately abusing and clinging to the tape machine as he remembers the lives he might have had. Elston’s performance feels unguarded and deeply personal, rendering the play’s horror of being trapped between a fear of death and fear of never having lived all the more powerful.

While it resists any sense of closure, Krapp’s Last Tape makes an unmistakable impact.

Runs until 9 June 2016 then touring | Image: Contributed

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Engaging and vulnerable

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