Writer: Jim Cartwright
Director: Mark Babych
Two is a play that benefits enormously from a staging that places the acting area, in one configuration or another, in the middle of the audience. One night in the pub is so much more vivid if the audience feels part of the action. In its 30 years of successful revivals it has even, on at least one occasion, been performed in an actual pub. So it is an entirely appropriate choice for the first production in which Hull Truck’s Heron auditorium is converted to an in the round setting – even more appropriate, given that this is a co-production with the Stephen Joseph Theatre and will move on to Scarborough’s In the Round auditorium.
The concept is simple, the execution much less so – for writer, director and actors alike. Two actors play the Landlord and Landlady of a pub and a selection of their customers as the evening wears on. A round bar is the centre of the acting area, surrounded by chairs, stools and tables, and the production opens with a quick-fire mime of the frantic action at the bar (no glasses, no bottles, no optics, just imagination) before the fraught relationship between the two establishes itself. She hates his corny jokes, he resents her sociability and generosity, there is comedy in the contrast between their shining smiles for the customers and the spiteful, supposedly unheard asides.
By the interval we have heard monologues from two downtrodden or lonely old people and a comic scene with a would-be Lothario and his more down to earth partner, an opportunity for interaction with the front row, especially the young woman constantly told, “You are beautiful” and persuaded to sit at the bar.
This is an evening of virtuoso acting performances and a variety of frequently comical characterisations: Nicola Stephenson and Matthew Wilson play seven parts each – Cartwright originally wanted double that, but there are limits! This could easily become superficial, but, after the interval, the grit enters into play and production.
The first scene with customers after the interval is a chilling chuckle suppressant and played with subdued, but intense, menace. A possessive, controlling young man monitors his partner’s every move obsessively (Why so long in the toilet? Who is she looking at?) and there is a constant threat of violence, finally realised.
Then the relationship between Landlord and Landlady steadily gains in depth. It is not just irritation and squabbling; there is a deep-seated wound in their relationship which they finally confront in a powerful scene among the (imagined) dirty glasses after closing time.
This doesn’t stop the second half containing the funniest scene in the play when two fat old (their terms) Elvis freaks exchange meaningless observations while watching a Western on the pub’s television and manifest an unexpected admiration for a fat extra on a palamino horse!
Mark Babych’s production expertly negotiates the many changes of tone required while remaining a whole and Jon Beney’s movement direction runs to some deliciously over-the-top dance moves. Nicola Stephenson and Matthew Wilson switch apparently effortlessly from comic caricature to sensitive monologue to realistic drama and make light of character changes that even require Wilson, not a small man, to turn into a little boy whose dad has left him outside the pub and forgotten him.
Runs until March 28th 2020