SMALL TALK, GREAT THEMES, THE LAUGHTER OF DESPAIR
“At times” says old Jack stoutly, flourishing his silver-topped cane “One’s glad simply to live on an island. Without the sea all around, civilization would never be the same. The ideals of life – liberty, freedom, democracy – well, if we’d been living on the Continent, for example…!” Harry civilly agrees. “Yes, no, absolutely”. They have bluff memories of army and RAF, nostalgia for imagined wartime values. They are ageing men, sitting out in the chilly sunshine: the Arcola’s underground studio nicely trellised, and scattered with post-gale autumn leaves.
When David Storey’s play premiered, it was 1970 and the men were John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson at the Royal Court. Now, with that generation almost gone, SEArEd and the Arcola revive it to honour the author’s 80th birthday. Director Amelia Sears, like many of us, finds it for the first time and recognizes its modern-classic beauty: like PInter with more heart, Beckett with more realism. Jack Shepherd is Harry, a dishevelled moulting eagle whose gentlemanly amiability masks an abyss of pain and dislocation. Paul Copley is the Brylcreemed, bonhomous Jack, all card-tricks and evasions. As the increasingly disconcerting, tense 105 minutes wear on they are joined solo and severally by others with an equal obliquity of small-talk. A shrewish, sharpnosed Marjorie is Tessa Peake-Jones, her giggling vulgarian friend Kathleen Linda Broughton.
The talk ranges around: anecdotes about relatives, truisms of business and current affairs, what’s for dinner , the weather, mutual half-acquaintances : they could be anybody you meet and make foregettable small-talk with or (in the women’s case) smile wincingly as they utter sudden coarsenesses. The play is interpreted as a commentary on a declining, stiff, post-imperial Britain but that now feels dated, a historic commentary. It is the picture of a more timeless dislocation that hurts: we learn gradually that they are all inmates in a large mental asylum: one of those which, had Storey but known it, would shortly be closed down and the inmates scattered into “care in the community”, erratic drug regimes and, often, prison. It is hard not to reflect on that as the pathos and revelation build and glimpses of their back-stories emerge – suicidality, violence, collapse, “following little girls”. Only one, the monosyllabic Alfred (Joseph Arkley) fits the popular image of a madman, appearing intermittently with an abrupt helpless violence which jerks the action onto another level.
Mostly, though, it is a fugue of small-talk revealing big themes: clichés woven into an immensity of human helplessness, pathos, despair. The laughs are real, but ever more sad (Peake-Jones’ veiled malevolence provokes several). Despite one heartbreaking handclasp it expresses the near-impossibility of mutual help, as each of us, forever alone, gabbles to distract ourselves from the yawning abyss of private reality. Storey’s brilliance has not faded away. The only glimmer of hope is that this particular kind of Englishness is on the wane…
box office 020 7503 1646 http://www.arcolatheatre.com to 23 Nov