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Krapp’s Last Tape/Orpheus in the Record Shop – Leeds Playhouse

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writers: Samuel Beckett, Testament

Directors: Dominic Hill, Aletta Collins

An evening at Leeds Playhouse and Opera North’s ambitious and meticulously organised event, Connected Voices, takes you in and out of the Playhouse’s many doors in a strict, politely enforced one-way system, all the time coming back to the Playhouse Square entrance for a remote temperature check and a visit to one of four theatre spaces.

Four pieces are performed over a time span of some four hours. Though it’s possible to book them individually, audience members taking on board the full project finish the evening with two works on the theme of looking back. Both are very successful, but they couldn’t be more different.

Krapp’s Last Tape, Samuel Beckett’s one-act classic, is ideally suited to the spartan subterranean setting of the Bramall Rock Void. On his 69th birthday, Krapp rifles through his boxes of old tapes until he finds one from 30 years before, which he plays. His 39-year-old self sounds much more self-confident, even pompous, and is contemptuous of the young man he was in his 20s, just as the 69-year-old is angered by the voice on the tape. Eventually, having sampled his memories, Krapp records his last tape.

The play is by no means unfunny, but the view of life is bleak. The tapes add up mostly to loss or failure, from his mother’s death to loves who are only a memory, from the ambitions that came to nothing to the over-optimistic claims of fire and energy that he made at 39. Listening back can amuse, but mainly it’s a torture, one that Krapp intensifies by replaying painful passages.

In Dominic Hill’s production Niall Buggy relishes the humour of Krapp’s unhealthy obsession with bananas (kept in a locked drawer) and his childish delight in the sound of the word “spool”. He makes listening an art-form, chuckling along with his younger self, reacting with furious fast-forwarding to parts he dislikes, attentively responding with little nods and grimaces. In its mixture of worn-down stillness and violent bursts of anguish, it’s a compelling performance.

Orpheus in the Record Shop, while undoubtedly a triumph, is much more difficult for a reviewer not versed in rap or beatboxing to assess. It makes use of a more orthodox theatre space, the Quarry Theatre with generous distancing between audience members and a stage filled with music stands and musical instruments.

Written and performed by Testament, and directed by Aletta Collins, it deals with the story of a record-shop owner, actually named Orpheus, much of it sounding like one long lamentation (his word), expressing his anger at customers, his father or the security guard or his grief at the loss of his lover (not called Eurydice) who has gone off to a nice arts administration job in Italy. Via an impressionistic narrative he learns the value of her message: “Never look back.”

Initially the script and direction seem too leisurely and self-indulgent, with, for instance, clever imitations of the sounds and rhythms of different styles of music or playing out comic confrontations. The effect is of an amiable stand-up routine; the result is the show is too long. Billed, even afterwards, as 40 or 50 minutes depending on website, it runs for 80 and half an hour in to this  Testament is still alone on stage alternating chat with rap and beatboxing – which certainly sound impressive, but which this reviewer is ill qualified to comment on.

It’s when a harpist slips in to accompany Testament that the show starts to change gear. Eventually a singer and seven more instrumentalists from the Opera North Orchestra join in, with memorable contributions from bassoon and clarinet. The fusion of Testament’s solo virtuosity with orthodox orchestral sound is beautifully managed, as is the juxtaposition of rap and conventional song (Testament in fine voice). The whole programme’s about connections and this certainly delivers.

Runs until October 17th  2020

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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