Jim Cartwright
Guildford Fringe Theatre Company
The Back Room of The Star, Guildford

Laurie Duncan and Claire Marlein

Necessity is the mother of invention and, following the Government’s latest lockdown decision, Guildford Fringe theatre company had to swiftly move its site-specific production of Jim Cartwright’s Two online.

Although inevitably a different experience, the seamless live-stream manages to retain the intimate atmosphere of The Back Room and, through effective visual mixing, provides a combination of camera angles that complement the action, offering up-close glimpses into the lives of the many characters as well as wider shots of the publican’s domain. The long bar frames this piece, nearly always lingering in the back of shot, a constant reminder that the pub itself is at the heart of the story.

First performed in 1989, Two is an almost timeless piece with an emphasis placed upon character rather than context. It could be set in the '80s or the present day and the bittersweet tone would still be as powerful and relevant. With two actors playing fourteen different characters between them, the script is a fantastic showcase of talent and a popular choice at drama festivals and for fringe venues.

As landlord and landlady, Laurie Duncan and Claire Marlein clearly relish the opportunity to demonstrate their range. The two work effectively together tackling monologues, duologues and the simmering tension of the publicans themselves, a marriage under strain but masked by professional banter.

Cartwright’s script captures an evening in an hour but delves into many different stories with a delicate balance of light and shade. The vignettes include Fred and Alice, a loving and slightly eccentric couple who visit the pub for crisps and TV, Moth the ladies man and his long-suffering but devoted girlfriend Maudie and the mismatched Mr and Mrs Iger—Mrs Iger professing her love for strong, big men, which Mr Iger is sadly not. The aforementioned lean into the comical whilst pathos can be found in the separate monologues of the old man and lady, one still talking to his dead wife and the other using the pub as a respite from caring for her elderly husband. These are both sensitively delivered and quite touching.

The most striking of the scenes is that between Roy and Lesley, tension building as it becomes evident that Roy is manipulative and abusive towards her. In a situation where she can’t win, Lesley’s lack of conversation only frustrates Roy further, his bubbling anger only barely contained. With such a different status interplay and in such stark contrast to all of the other couple scenes, this is perhaps the stand-out for Duncan and Marlein, their physicality and energy completely different, the scenario upsetting and all too realistic.

Reflecting the humdrum and the poetic, the startling and the raw, Cartwright’s finely tuned script waltzes the audience through the parade of regulars, never lingering for too long on any one world. Guildford Fringe’s production is a timely reminder of how a pub can offer comfort and escape and how well observed theatre can hold a mirror up to life.

Reviewer: Amy Yorston

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