Canal Café Theatre
Taking one's seat at the Canal Café Theatre requires an act of Yoga. Audience members share candlelit tables, facilitating conversation, and, if you're lucky, romance. Unfortunately I was stuck next to two gregarious veterans, one of whom spied my note pad and coffee (it's a give away; no self-respecting twenty three year-old would frequent a theatre, alone, on a Friday night, and then mark the occasion with a coffee).
"Arrgh. A critic. You from The Daily Mail?"
"Quite. Ha ha ha." It was an inauspicious start.
Should old acquaintance be forgot? When the acquaintance in question gorges baked-beans like a famished marsupial, encamps uninvited at one's home for extended periods, and impregnates one's previously tranquil existence with witless, endless waffle, then yes they should.
Paul, one half of the awkward, protracted reunion at the centre of Benjamin Cooper's Old Acquaintance, is such a man. The other half is Ancient History lecturer David (Giles Stoakley), a Salman Rushdie lookalike whose country abode is imperiously invaded by a forgotten friend searching for company, recognition and a dam to halt time's unfriendly flow.
David's living room is the arena in which an alleged friend becomes a lingering foe (how long has it been? A decade? Two? Did we ever meet?). Strewn with antiquated paraphernalia - dusty, leaning towers of books; Edwardian golf clubs; furniture that bespeaks inter-war austerity - the mise-en-scene befits only one of its two dwellers: where as David is content to be a part of the furniture - stolid and fixed, acceptant of sterility - Paul, a verbose Peter Pan with fears of impotency and solitude, is at ill-ease in such anachronistic surroundings.
The writing is lively, scrupulous and quietly brave: Cooper is not fearful of representing banality, nor is he reluctant to plunge into a character and run amok. The result is a balanced offering of the decadent and the dull. In David and Paul, Cooper conjures a fruitful dynamic which pits a hermit bent on solace against a garrulous, attention-seeking charlatan.
Toby W. Davies (Paul) is genetically tailored for a role oozing in pretension, animation and decadent, faux-high-brow fuzz. It is a curiosity whether Cooper is satirizing here - using Paul's inflated persona to poke fun at the hyperbole and empty flamboyance of aristocracy - or is simply employing a characterized voice-box to vent his own winded, wordy whims.
As a performance, Davies' is salient. The sinews in his neck appear to speak every line: his body, rather than simply a medium for his character, is his character. Davies offers a kinetic and emotional uneasiness which is at once irksome and plaintive.
The decision to splice the narrative into perhaps a dozen episodes, each demarcated by a black-out, effected a discontinuity at odds with the play's thematic concerns. If Cooper intended to convey time's relentless, emotionless cycle - its weight, its scar, its terror - then interrupting the action so frequently and conspicuously strikes as a counter-intuitive piece of dramaturgy. If it is time's stagnant sauna that one hopes to evoke, the steam needs to be allowed to brew.
Accordingly, what could have been a thoughtful and probing inquiry into mortality and temporality, manifests as a blunted, stunted sketch-based comedy. Old Acquaintance, I feel, wears the costume of a brisk, jaunty comedy, but has the innards of a more stifling, oppressive piece of drama. Some of Cooper's choice silences and abrupt, uncompromising banality hint at the work of the late Harold Pinter. But it is only ever a hint.
The dénouement is a rush of eviction and reconciliation. Enjoyable as it was - David and Paul bring in the new year with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne - the play's resolution only goes half way to asking some serious questions.
Until 17th January
Reviewer: Ben Aitken