C54 Theatre Company
Oliver's Village Café, Belsize
Performed in a little café near the heart of Belsize Village that barely seats two dozen, this is a site-specific one-man show performed by the writer that offers portrayals of four very different men.
This isn't a piece that grows naturally from the situation. When the audience is settled with their coffee and a free slice of cake (or you can buy a glass of wine) a man comes in from the street and hoists himself up to sit on the serving counter. It is hardly expected behaviour for a customer so it's obvious the play's begun. Who is he?
Maybe he's not very sure himself. I think he welcomed us so perhaps he is the proprietor but he moves to the doorway at the back and, pulling a piece of paper out of his pocket, begins to address us in a manner that seems more and more like a small child, reading from it what his father says about the comfort and reassurance to be gained from holding a warm drink in a mug.
Picking up a rolled umbrella as a walking stick and bowing his back, he now becomes an slightly grotesque elderly customer who tells how he found this café and shares the fact that walking into it gave him the same sensation as you must get jumping out of an aeroplane and how he decided to sample their speciality a ginger and lemon drink that can be taken hot or cold.
Dave, who is the café's owner, is the next person to materialise with his story of how he inherited a considerable sum when both parents were killed in a motor accident but gave it to a local cattery (he's very fond of his own cat), then won a fortune on the lottery and when unsuccessful in trying to give that away he bought the café.
There is more from the child about drinking vessels and the older man tells us about Claire, the wife who used to advise him about everything, and how he took care of her before we meet the fourth character appears. He's a guy from Tadcaster whose company have sent him down from Yorkshire to London to encourage people to stop using eco-friendly reusable shopping bags and go back to the plastic ones that they produce. His wife didn't want to move and he's finding the transition difficult - they speak a different language down here don't they?
As the other characters share more things with us we see a darker side to them. The child is just a bit obnoxious but, while the older man's motives are unclear, Dave seems to have had a decidedly unpleasant streak. It would spoil it to say more.
Apart from the slightly awkward opening the performance Natasha James direction makes effective use of the whole space but allows a certain artificiality in some of the dialogue and despite the widower's bent back he remains vocally very youthful. However, the confidence with which Johnson plays up close and often face to face gives his performance real edge.
At about 45 minutes in length this is a slight but intriguing entertainment as an aperitif before going on to dinner. The full house I saw it with seemed to thoroughly enjoy it and if they were also playing it at a later hour it would be a pleasant way of having an after dinner cake and coffee (and might even cost less than it would in some of the neighbouring restaurants).
At 92 Belsize Lane, NW3, next performances 23rd - 28th March
Reviewer: Howard Loxton