Jim Cartwright
Coliseum Theatre, Oldham

Production photo

A little over twenty years after its first performance at the Octagon in Bolton, Oldham Coliseum revives Jim Cartwright's collection of character vignettes Two (originally To) directed by Joyce Branagh with a soundtrack from that late eighties era.

Set in a northern pub, the unnamed landlord and landlady serve unseen customers while abusing one another under their breath. The same two actors then play a selection of characters who come into the pub: an old woman who comes for a drink as a break from looking after her frail husband, compulsive but unsuccessful womaniser Moth and his long-suffering girlfriend Maudie, an old man who talks of how he carries around the spirit of his late wife, Mrs Iger who likes 'big men' and her husband who is too timid to get served at the bar, Lesley and her abusive husband Roy, fat couple Fred and Alice, the 'other woman' spying on her man and his wife and a little boy whose dad left him outside and forgot him.

Once the customers have gone home and the door is locked, the inevitable showdown between the landlord and the landlady explodes, revealing what happened exactly seven years ago to cause the bitterness and resentment between them.

This is the sort of play that many actors relish the challenge of performing in, testing their versatility with the multiple roles. The Coliseum has assembled a cast of TV star Claire Sweeney and Matthew Rixon, an actor well-known for some acclaimed local theatre performances – notably as Aston in Pinter's The Caretaker earlier this year at the Octagon and with his father Matthew Kelly in Beckett's Endgame at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre – and both rise to the challenge extremely well.

Branagh's direction always seemed to be pushing the production towards emphasising the comedy whereas the actors often pull back a bit towards realism, which produces some interesting tensions in some scenes. The opening scene of serving at a busy bar does not quite get the pace right or make the exchanges seem real and the closing scene of conflict and resolution is a little halting – although it certainly struck a chord with someone on press night who was sobbing loudly – but these are minor quibbles that will no doubt improve as the production beds down.

All of Rixon's characters are highlights, from the loud but pathetic Moth with his impressively embarrassing dancing and the timid Mr Iger to the contented old man and the loveable little boy, but his portrayal of Roy, who is the friendly 'life and soul' to all of his mates in the pub but verbally and physically abuses his wife if she so much as raises her eyes from the floor, chillingly gets the balance just about perfect. Sweeney's Lesley is also perfectly played in this scene, but she also enjoys getting her teeth into the more commanding Mrs Iger, the flirty landlady and a good range of others.

Keith Orton's set comprises of a realistic wooden bar in the middle of the stage on a giant bar towel and a table and stools on a giant beer mat, but the half-lit rows of giant beer bottles roughly painted on cut-out board look a bit tacky in comparison and don't serve any purpose. Sound designer Lorna Munden has created an impressive soundscape in which subtle sound effects of glasses, beer pumps, optics, the till and other mimed objects are synchronised perfectly with the actors' actions, although they are a little too quiet and would have been far more effective if they came from speakers on stage rather than the main PA speakers over the audience's heads.

Transitions between scenes are sometimes a little awkward, but generally there is a lot in this production that brings out the best of the comedy and the tears in Cartwright's short but intriguing piece. The cast is well-chosen, showing great skill in characterisation, and handles the dialogue well, which is someway between natural dialect and lyrical prose. All-in-all a production worth seeing for quite an emotional journey including some great laughs.

o 24 October 2009

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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