Raymond Carver was a master of the short story form who sadly died long before his time. He was something of an American Chekhov of the 1970s and 1980s, chronicling ordinary lives with quirky good humour. His dissolute lifestyle eventually finished him off but not before it had provided much material for his perceptive semi-autobiographical writings.
Carver's work has already been converted into other media, most prominently by Robert Altman in the film Short Cuts.
Veteran director, Bill Gaskill, who started running the Royal Court as long as 40 years ago, has adapted five Carver stories, three of around half an hour and two shorter, for the stage. These are presented, using nothing but the writer's words, in the round, utilising Jon Bausor's effective sets. The designer has a real affinity with the Arcola's unusual space and makes the most of it, allowing actors to pop up from unusual directions.
The highlight is undoubtedly the hilarious title story from Carver's first collection, which opens the second half. Put Yourself in My Shoes allows viewers to experience a writer's nightmare. Carver look-alike, Mark Carroll's Myers and his wife visit their old, disliked neighbours for a cup of Christmas cheer.
Boy! do they get more than they bargained for with stern, grumpily-mad Edgar Morgan (the brilliant Bruce Alexander) and his wacky wife Hilda (Rosemary McHale). The older couple's efforts to feed material to the writer are rich and beautifully delivered. You positively cringe, as versions of the Morgans from your own life flood back.
This is followed by an introspective piece in which another Carver figure visits his ex-wife, well realised by Kathryn Pogson. She soon understands that he is seeking a kind of cathartic freedom through regret and forgiveness - but also a story for publication.
What's in Alaska opens the evening with a look at two couples doing nothing all that unusual over a hookah of powerful dope. The pleasure is in the writer's observations of the minutiae of small-town America.
This is followed by a short tale of a fat man who eats his way through a restaurant menu, bringing to mind the famously explosive Monty Python Mr Creosote sketch. In this case though, the writer draws sympathy for a lonely man who, like our own Queen, talks of himself exclusively in the first person plural.
The only flat note is delivered by an overly long adaptation of Cathedral. This is the story of a blind man who, once again aided by a dose of dope, helps his old employee's husband to see himself and his life in a new, clear light.
Carver has deservedly received almost unanimous critical acclaim already. It serves two purposes. First, it allows us to enjoy the self-exposure of a great writer who uses his own life to illuminate those of others. Secondly, it serves as a memorial to Raymond Carver and a reminder of what a great writer he was.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher