The Underground Man, an award winning novel by author Mick Jackson is a fictionalised account of the real life eccentric Nottinghamshire aristocrat William Cavendish -Scott-Bentinck (1800-1879). The semi-recluse is renowned for building a maze of tunnels, through which one could drive a horse and cart with ease, under his estate as far out as Cresswell Crags. Although a philanthropist William never wanted to meet people if at all possible excepting the tenants of his vast estate for whom he had a fatherly fondness.
In this excellent Nottingham Playhouse theatre adaptation by Nick Wood the Neville Studio space sees itself transformed into a long playing space with seating either side. The open set design (Harriet Clarke) is bookended by giant cogs like the interior of a time piece or perhaps even representing the boring mechanism used to excavate the tunnels. They could also represent the passing of time in William’s crazed tick tock head. Associate artist Andrew Breakwell directs the one hundred minute piece with fine tuning and inventive usage of the space.
Although it seems like a whole village of people on stage at times the piece is admirably performed by only two actors namely: Iain Armstrong (William) and Mick Jasper (Clement and other characters). Musician and composer Nigel Waterhouse is regularly within and without the story accenting the various moods through the musical medium of the accordion. The unobtrusive incorporating of this level and style of presenting live music is quite magical.
Armstrong portrays William superbly as an eccentric temperamental old man plagued by real and imagined illnesses; a sour stomach, crippling intestinal pains that are comically relieved by a massive candle lit fart that nearly sets the bedroom alight; severe back and neck pains, imaginary stones and constant references to a medical tome for his maladies. William has strong concerns over failing memory “Deprived of our memories we are deprived of our very selves. Without our histories we are vacated. We may walk and talk and eat and sleep but, in truth, we are nobody.” Armstrong’s William professes a great admiration for engineers who ‘put things together without the head getting in the way’ and yet he also ponders the nature of the ‘everybody’ of his time who he believes know next to nothing about their bodies and remonstrates that we should be given a manual at birth. Throughout the later part of the play it is his own head and maze of troubled mind which give him the most concern as he falls into mental decline. Some regular wry humour within the piece gives it great balance as a compelling work of theatre.
In contrast to William’s hypochondria and flakey ways the man servant Clement, terrifically played by Mick Jasper, offers constant support to William throughout. His portrayal is under-stated acting at its best – the character deferential to his master – yet with occasional bouts of speaking his own mind out of frustration. Particularly moving is a scene where William has locked himself in his room and the servant comes again and again to implore William to eat or come out from his recluse without knowledge of why he is hiding away. In a play which asks the actors to present nearly two hours of text Jasper is especially brilliant in his depiction of several characters including the stroke affected gardener Mr Snow, the Oakley twins (ladies), Connor the blind bone setter, the Rev Mellor, Edinburgh based Professor Bannister and the loathed Doctor Cox.
Nick Wood’s sterling, atmospheric, adaptation plays with the form by bringing in the haunting presence of ‘the floating boy’ as leitmotif. The real nature of this unseen character is only revealed at the end of Wood’s gently captivating play re-inventing the life of one of Nottingham’s great eccentrics.
A must see.
Runs until 8 October at Nottingham Playhouse Neville Studio.
Photo credits: Alan Fletcher.
Reviewer: Phil Lowe