All That Fall

Samuel Beckett
Jermyn Street Theatre

Sir Michael Gambon and Dame Eileen Atkins Credit: Polly Hancock

One might more naturally expect to find the ennobled likes of Cranford co-stars Sir Michael Gambon and Dame Eileen Atkins in the company of Sir Trevor Nunn at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party or some other lavish entertainment.

Instead, this heady trio are the leading figures effortlessly selling out the 70 seats at Jermyn Street Theatre at the moment.

One day, someone will explain how this staged revival of a 1956 comic radio play by Samuel Beckett (presumably commissioned in the wake of Waiting for Godot's success the previous year) came to happen and found a home at what must be the West End's smallest theatre.

The certainty is that this was not the idea of accountants, who could surely have suggested other means of monetising the popular stars of Harry Potter and Upstairs Downstairs, under the guidance of the distinguished former artistic director of the National Theatre.

Even the play itself is unexpected. It might best be characterised by comparisons—with The Archers, Under Milk Wood and any number of Irish idylls, though with a dark twist in the tale. All That Fall also has a far stronger narrative line than one would normally expect from this writer, as well as a cast of nine, significantly more than his usual handful, if that.

The focal point is Dame Eileen's fussy Mrs Rooney, an elderly woman who has known good times and bad but naturally has a tendency to favour the latter.

This natural moaner spends a considerable part of the 80 minutes making her way to meet her blind husband played by, Sir Michael, at the local station.

This allows scope for considerable comedy at the expense of the old lady, which peaks as Gerard Horan's generous Mr Slocum makes the mistake of offering her a lift in his jalopy, with hilarious consequences that really do work better on stage than will have been the case on the radio.

Several other encounters along the way give experienced Irish actors, in particular Catherine Cusack playing irritable spinster Miss Fitt and James Hayes as the station master the chance to enjoy themselves.

What seems like no more than an everyday story of country folk builds to a moving climax as Mrs Rooney makes great efforts to discover why her husband's train is so late.

The evening is presented as a radio recording, complete with deliberately intrusive sound effects. However, the actors do rather more than would be necessary in a recording studio, giving their characters considerably greater life. The big advantage of this tiny venue is the ability to see right into the actors' eyes and souls. Nobody is more than five relatively cramped rows back from the performers.

It is a privilege to be present for such a special occasion. Dame Eileen Atkins is the undoubted star, giving a haunting depiction of the bewilderment and misery that sometimes comes with old age. She receives great support not only from Sir Michael, who gets a cameo at the end but also the remainder of this strong cast.

It would be a great shame if this lovely little star vehicle could only be seen by such small numbers and therefore let us hope that the producers find a bigger house for a transfer at the end of the run.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher