Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
After a successful run in the title role of Zack at the Royal Exchange just over a year ago, local comedian and radio presenter Justin Moorhouse returns to the stage as one half of Two at one of the few theatres this play hasn't been produced at in the area in the last few years.
A great showcase for actors to show off their versatility, Two is set in a northern pub where the landlord and landlady hurl vicious insults at one another as quickly and as frequently as they serve drinks up to the customers with a cheery smile and a corny joke. All of the props are mimed, and all of the customers that we do see plus our hosts are played by the same two actors.
So we get the story of the old woman who spends her life looking after her ill husband but finds time to go shopping and nip in the pub for a Guinness, the woman who loves big men but whose puny husband is too timid to get served at the bar, the man who chats up every girl in the bar and can charm his girlfriend to pay for all of his drinks, the man who threatens his wife every time he thinks she is looking at another man and much more.
All of this is framed by the story of the landlord and landlady. The cause of their mutual hatred is about to come to a head as she keeps asking him what day it is and he avoids the question, until she forces him to confront the terrible thing that happened seven years ago that tore them apart.
Jim Cartwright's distinctive prose, at once poetic and northern working class, tells a wide variety of stories, most funny and some shocking or moving. Greg Hersov's production designed by Amanda Stoodley puts a circular wooden bar right in the centre of the Exchange's in-the-round space with a chandelier made from beer glasses over it.
The two actors work very well together in the smallest ensemble cast it is possible to have. Victoria Elliott is particularly impressive in the range and distinctiveness of the characters she creates, and although Justin Moorhouse is clearly not as experienced or versatile an actor, he certainly holds his own with some pretty decent performances and great stage charisma. I'm sure he'll grow in confidence during the run of the play.
The production turns certain lines that were directed at imaginary other customers into bits of semi-improvised audience participation, which actually works well in the close environment of the Royal Exchange and is something that Moorhouse in particular seems to revel in. It doesn't all succeed perfectly, as there are some little touches in the domestic violence scene that don't ring true—although it still produced a gasp at its shocking climax—and the final scene seems very flat and slow—but still hits the emotional buttons at crucial moments.
However, a few little niggles aside, this short but entertaining piece—far more entertaining than the Christmas show—sends the audience through a mix of emotions from hilarity to tears and is well worth seeing.
Reviewer: David Chadderton