Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Two’, which is at The New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme until Saturday 22nd of February.
I’ve been in quite a few imaginary public houses in my time. But the pub (in the round) currently on stage at the New Vic Theatre (in the round) is by far the most appealing. Why, they even offer free beer before the show.
Funnily enough, I find that the longer I stay in a pub, the more fertile my imagination becomes – and this play proves what I always suspected. “The best thing about a pub is the people”. Luckily, I just love people watching; observing them come and go…clocking their brief interactions with each other and wondering what happens to them next.
I suspect the playwright Jim Cartwright is much the same. I can just picture the author of ‘The Rise and Fall of Little Voice’ popping into an unfamiliar hostelry, watching the regulars from over the rim of a pint glass, noting down what they say and do, and then exaggerating the arcs of their lives. “There’s a jolly good play is this”, he would have thought. And he was right.
His northern creation won the Manchester Evening News ‘Best New Play’ award 30 years ago and it’s been on stage somewhere or other in the world ever since. And I’ll bet you a pint of Titanic that this new production must be one of the best.
Craftily, Cartwright’s play has a great deal about it to appeal to Theatre Managers. It’s a very funny and surprisingly poignant crowd pleaser – and, as the title suggests, you only have to pay two actors.
For them, the challenge is to be gloriously versatile enough to fill the ‘pub’ with such memorable personalities … both behind the bar and propping it up. Between them, Samantha Robinson and Jimmy Fairhurst play a cavalcade of 14 exceptional characters … all of which, in the briefest of episodes, succeed in touching a nerve.
Jimmy’s cameos range from a sad old granddad, perched on a bar stool with a free pint, telling us he is still in touch with his late wife. “She’s here now,” he says, and you can’t help but glance around for her. A change of shirt (on stage, before our very eyes) and he turns into a useless, predatory ladies’ man; a permanently broke bloke from Liverpool who is more interested in getting into his girlfriend’s handbag than her knickers. When her back is turned however, he’s embarrassing the hell out of a glamourous blond on the front row with his appalling chat-up lines. But Jimmy’s most startling portrayal is of an insidious wife-beater, who’s controlling accusations and sudden act of violence had me flinching angrily in my seat.
Samantha’s characters are equally expertly executed. She is the whimpering wife who can no longer stand her bullying husband but can’t walk out on him because he’s got the house keys. There’s an achingly sad soliloquy from an aging carer who has to carry her sick husband up and down the stairs and can only briefly escape to talk to her beer. “Why do we keep going?” she asks. And there’s the most unlikely Tina Turner tribute act ever, performed by a brassy woman who likes a man with a tongue as rough as an elephant’s ear … but is stuck with a spineless nerd instead.
Together the two of them play a pair of life’s misfits who see the world a little differently from the rest of us. “You killed Elvis”, their conversation goes, because you bought his records and that made him rich enough to buy drugs and that’s why he died on the toilet.
Whilst the customers come and go, the hollowed-out hosts hold the play together. Our landlord and landlady tell us they met as kids outside this pub and held their wedding reception there. Now they struggle to run it; keeping up appearances and calling everyone “duck” whilst progressively hinting at the past tragedy that has left them wrangling and reaching for the optics.
It’s the late appearance of a tearful little boy (who’s been left outside with a bottle of pop and a bag of crisps by a dad who has subsequently forgotten all about him) that unlocks the central sad memory. Only when “last orders” has been called and the last pint pulled is there time to talk.
Echoing the play all evening on video screens has been footage of their happier days. I’d not seen this flashback device used in ‘Two’ before and was wondering about its purpose. There is an undercurrent to the play which is often marginalised to focus on the laughs. But the conclusion of this production is so wonderfully amplified by those final video images, they raise its status way beyond knock-about pub theatre to a fully-fledged, feeling drama.
Overall, the show is cleverly constructed, sparingly and incisively written and beautifully performed. Like Titanic beer, it goes down a treat … and, as it finishes at 9.30, there’s even time to go for a pint afterwards.