No Man's Land
Duke of York's Theatre
Rupert Goold is becoming the saviour of serious theatre in the West End, as this transfer from the Gate in Dublin comes hard on the heels of his startling reinterpretation of Pirandello's Six Characters.
This time around, he has a cast to appeal to all tastes, balancing the great Sir Michael Gambon with two talented stage actors and an unexpected stage acting debutante, David Walliams.
No Man's Land is one of the most impenetrable plays of a man hardly renowned for clarity. Four men play intellectual games with each other for a couple of hours, exploring myriad ideas and moods, with pastiche never too far from the surface.
It is possible that the play is an exploration of the limbo that the well-to-do Hirst's soul has entered prior to his final trip across the River Styx. Thus, in strange ways, aspects of his life pass before his alcohol-sozzled eyes as he tries to make sense of it all, amid a series of power struggles from which nobody emerges as victor.
The setting, designed by Giles Cadle and gorgeously lit by Neil Austin, has all the makings of a plush Gentleman's Club with a well-stocked bar. In fact, it is the lounge or library of Sir Michael's well-to-do writer Hirst, like all of his companions named after stars from cricket's Golden Age, also brought to mind by some sporting-sexual metaphors along the way.
There, the posh toper, barely able to stand, initially chats with David Bradley, playing the long-haired poet Spooner, whom Hirst has picked up on Hampstead Heath. They definitively both do and don't know each other of old and this level of uncertainty is repeated in other ways throughout the play.
The old gents gently amuse each other and the audience with unlikely reminiscences but the mood turns much darker with the arrival of the sinister pairing of Foster and Briggs. While David Walliams might be much better known to viewers of Little Britain, and does a solid job on his professional stage acting debut, Nick Dunning is something else.
He sneers for England and with terrifying passivity is scary enough to be the subject of nightmares for callower viewers. They threaten and lock up Spooner but, ultimately, are trapped in this world as surely as the older men, first played by John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson almost 35 years ago.
This is a funny, sinister production that showcases all four actors, with the pitch perfect Sir Michael Gambon the most effective, especially when his character is falling-over drunk.
Tickets will be hard to come by but those that strike lucky will have the chance to witness a memorable production of a difficult play and acting to die for.
Booking to 3 January 2009
Reviewer: Philip Fisher