It’s 1989 and the local pub stinks of stale beer and fags. The Landlord and Landlady bicker constantly whilst charming the locals and serving the drinks. Life passes in and out the doors, flotsam and jetsam. It’s Two, Jim Cartwright’s esteemed play, a meditation on the human condition, which leaves you feeling parched and a bit punch drunk.
The production by Derby Theatre is ambitious and original, with its working on-stage bar, audience seating as part of the pub and an Alice in Wonderland set. The sweeping parabola of the bar and the distorted perspective of the walls give a rather dream-like quality to something which otherwise is very realistic. The auditorium is not physically separate from the stage and therefore we are all customers. And that’s why the play hits home like a hangover with us considering, is that quiet couple munching their crisps, happy in each other’s company, us? Or are we more like the controlling Roy and the compliant Lesley? Who’s the ‘other woman’?
Cartwright presents 14 different characters and dissects them for us, opening them up, showing their frailties and fears, their foibles and fantasies. As a piece of writing, it’s fluid and poetic and startling at the same time.
What is most astounding about this play is that the 14 characters are played by 2 actors. A quick change of coat or hairstyle, a slumped posture or blank expression, all serve to create a new individual. Sean McKenzie is outstanding in centring each character so convincingly that there is no ‘join’. His Landlord is brusque and busy, with a pocket full of repetitive jokes and the desire to succeed.
Then Moth appears, a would-be gigolo with a gold chain and a repertoire of bad dance moves, always with an ‘eye for the ladies’. Most moving is his Old Man, a study in the ability of silence to communicate, wonderful. In Roy, he creates a quiet monster of such loathsome proportions, there is a sickening stillness in the audience.
Jo Mousley plays all the female characters with comparable skill, excelling at extracting the comedy from Maudie and Alice, whilst drawing one into the emotional heartland of others. The Old Woman recounts her day, speaks fondly of the local butcher whose skills she admires, drinks her “reward from the glass” and talks of “him at home with the tele, in the burdock dark a dead dandelion in his mouth”. In this we find a complex and crushing picture of domestic routine and lost hope. Lesley is played with great subtlety (not easy whilst projecting on a stage), small flinches and microscopic movements hinting at containment, control and co-ercion.
These individual portraits are created with a deftness and delicacy that belies the hard work that must have gone in to find the heart of them. Each character is fully realised and feels like it could have it’s own ‘spin off’ play or scene, they are real, not easy ‘tropes’ but like you and me, complicated, extraordinary, unique. How, then, the actors found a shorthand method of changing from one to the other with such speed and conviction is hard to imagine. But the arc that carries through the play is the one that allows us to go on a journey, that of Landlord and Landlady. As their story unfolds, we get a glimpse of something lurking, a dark shadow, until finally all is revealed in a burst of shattered dreams.
Two is a reflection of reality, life seen through the prism of a pub. It examines the minutiae of the everyday and makes it heroic and banal and comedic all at once. But it is also a piece of pure theatre, providing a platform for supremely skilled actors to show their trade. In a recent interview, Mousley called Two an “ode to actors”. Under Julia Thomas’s challenging direction, with an original production concept by Sarah Brigham and a stunning set, Mousley and McKenzie have created poetry in motion.
Runs at Derby Theatre until Saturday 24th March
Reviewer: Kathryn McAuley.