Jon Fosse, translated by Gregory Motton
Cock Tavern Theatre

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Couples fall to pieces on stage all the time, but it's a rare production that can tease something charming and sweet from the inevitable collapse. That the Cock Tavern's new production of Jon Fosse's Nightsongs is such a production is beyond doubt; the question is whether director Hamish MacDougall had to twist against Fosse's script to make it so.

Fosse's play - here translated by Gregory Motton - is one in which much is said, and much repeated, but little is expressed. What drives the nameless central couple apart is a lack of communication disguised under an overabundance of speech: loops and spirals of small talk and the same old grievances aired again and again.

Credit is due to MacDougall and to Rosalind Steele (the Young Woman) for bringing out the poetic quality of those recurring phrases. Handled badly, a poetic refrain can be indistinguishable from a backtrack to cover a fluffed line, but Steele makes the Young Woman's frequent recourse to safe, familiar conversational territory an essential ingredient of her personality.

In contrast, the Young Man (Peter James) rarely speaks. The couple - once high school sweethearts, now live-in lovers with a newborn son - are such a classic example of opposites attracting that it's easy to see why their relationship is doomed, but hard not to root for them to stay together.

That he is so quiet neatly accommodates her need to speak and to repeat - yet his reticence drives her mad. His agoraphobia allows her to socialise knowing he won't leave the baby - but he's as leery of the baby as of everyone else, and she can't relax knowing he's waiting up for her. Their personalities complement one another, but their temperaments are incompatible. Their very tragicomic contradictions make them a believable and, what's more, endearing couple.

Less convincing is Steele's onstage chemistry with Andrew Steele as the Young Woman's "lover" Baste. That's not necessarily to the production's detriment: that the Young Woman's declarations of "fondness" for Baste ring so hollow is just further comic proof that, despite their differences, she and the Young Man are made for each other. Baste, then, has been press-ganged into the flat by the Young Woman more as a kick up the pants for the Young Man than as a realistic alternative to him.

The only problem with this interpretation (MacDougall's?) is that Andrew Steele's awkward, round-shouldered shuffling is at odds with Baste's lines: they indicate a genuine wish to spirit away the Young Woman, whereas Mr Steele's performance indicates - in keeping with this production's celebration of the central couple - that he would rather be absolutely anywhere else.

In the end, these small discrepancies are worth ignoring, because examining the central couple's charms as much as their flaws makes for an enjoyable, smile-out-loud production - and lends the surprise ending a whole extra layer of bewildering pathos.

Until 20 February

Reviewer: Matt Boothman

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