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Ay Carmela!

Josè Sanchis Sinisterra, translated by Steve Trafford
An Ensemble/Theatre Royal co-production
York Theatre Royal
(2006)

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As if the privations of the Spanish Civil War weren't enough to cope with, husband-and-wife variety artists Paulino (Robert Pickavance) and Carmela (Elizabeth Mansfield) accidentally stray into fascist-held territory - and end up performing for General Franco, a selection of Axis troops and a group of International Brigade prisoners due to be executed on the following day. Paulino's well-developed instinct for self-preservation leads him to suppress his leftist sympathies, but the tender-hearted Carmela proves to be made of sterner stuff. The climax of their show was to have been a skit ridiculing the Republican flag, but Carmela uses it to make a heroic - and fatal - gesture of solidarity with the condemned prisoners.

Sinisterra's two-hander, directed by Tom Wright, presented translator Steve Trafford with a challenge: how to do justice to the author's poetic yet colloquial style. Despite not being a fluent Spanish speaker (he freely admits to using a literal translation, a French translation and Spanish and French dictionaries), Trafford succeeds brilliantly. The ear quickly becomes attuned to picking up his clever but unobtrusive use of alliteration and internal rhymes, yet the dialogue never sounds contrived or self-consciously "poetic" - quite an achievement in a work so strongly influenced by the work of Samuel Beckett and the Latin American tradition of magic realism.

When the play begins Carmela is already dead and the International Brigade prisoners have been shot and buried in a mass grave. Paulino, seeking solace in the bottle, is understandably startled by Carmela's disarmingly casual return from the afterlife. She describes it as a sort of annexe to Purgatory - a drab, disorganised place whose inhabitants eat tasteless food whilst waiting interminably for further instructions. If you've ever used the British rail network on a Sunday you'll know exactly what she means (the only difference seems to be that the ghost of Federico Garcia Lorca is unlikely to appear on Platform Three and present you with a posthumous poem).

Having reunited his protagonists Sinisterra takes us on a time-warping journey through Carmela's final hours. The couple struggle to present an unrehearsed show with no props, no scenery, erratic lighting and a script written on scraps on paper. Paulino lurches from one political faux pas to another, accidentally reads out his shopping list and tries to cover for Carmela's increasingly strange behaviour. And although we already know how the evening will end it still comes as a shocking mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous: as Carmela holds the Republican flag aloft, Paulito frantically tries to distract the fascist top brass by demonstrating an unconventional talent (one he shares with the legendary Le Petomane).

Elizabeth Mansfield, who co-founded Ensemble with Steve Trafford, is ideally cast as Carmela. As well as giving a wonderfully funny and moving performance she also has a thrilling singing voice which is used to the full in several musical numbers. Robert Pickavance gives a tour de force performance as the harassed Paulino, in comparison with whom Basil Fawlty is positively laid-back. The couple perform their flamenco routine with real panache and their interaction, both "on-stage" and behind the scenes, has the easy familiarity born of long experience. It's easy to believe that these two have been working together for years.

Ay Carmela! is unusually long for a two-hander - at least fifteen minutes could be shaved off the running time without any detriment to the play - and it occasionally assumes a more extensive knowledge of the Spanish Civil War than the average English audience member will possess. But it's one of those plays that rattle around in the mind long after you leave the auditorium, and another feather in Ensemble's cap.

"Ay Carmela!" plays at the Theatre Royal until 30th September, then tours to Darlington, Bolton, Leicester, Farnham, Tunbridge Wells, Frome, Chipping Norton, Beetham, Shepperton, Taunton, Halesworth, London, Cardiff and Cheltenham. Tour ends 25th November

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson