FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE Minerva, Chichester

A MODERN DATE,  AN ANCIENT NEED…

 

 
You could say it starts with a happy ending. Well, of a sort. Certainly the blackout is riven by an exuberant sexual racket, and as the light slowly rises on a tiny NYC apartment the couple disengage from the sofa-bed and cackle with the laughter of relaxation.  Lovers, though, they are not. This is the modern way, the Saturday night of lonely urban singles reaching for a passing intimacy, She is a waitress, he the short-order cook they caught one another’s eye: a date, a movie-and- benefits . Both grownups with a history, ages either side of the big 5-0, nothing serious…

 

 
Or is it? Terrence McNally’s 1987 two-hander is a delicate, feignedly flippant and deadly serious exploration of human fear of – and need for – intimacy. Against convention he gives the role of romantic to Johnny, who within a jokey uproariousness expresses an earnest demand to be allowed to love, admire, worship and commit. Frankie, brittle and bruised and defensive, purports to be toughly pragmatic, reluctant to accept his exuberant sincerity. Which is sometimes gloriously expressed, sometimes with a kind of ferocity – “Wake up, Cinderella, your Prince Charming has come! It could be another thousand years…”. Sometimes, as they spar through the first act, the thought crosses your mind that someone falling in love with you can feel like an act of aggression.

 

 
Which is, of course, an ancient thought: the pressures and persuasions of courtly love run through a thousand years of art. McNally is well aware of this: both are momentarily transported by Bach on the radio and his autodidact Johnny is intermittently prone to quote Shakespeare, with the lovely observation that it’s all very difficult archaic language “and then he puts it all together clear and simple, and it’s nice”.

 

 

 

Success in such a fragile intimate piece depends heavily on the actors: Dervla Kirwan and Neil Stukecould hardly be better. Kirwan gives off the depth of Frankie’s defensive, damaged pain beneath the stiffness and petulance of her rejections; Stuke has an even harder task, because Johnny could be irritating – or, as she says, “too intense, gives me the creeps”. But behind his explosive declarations is something which he himself defines as courageous: a demand, in mid-life and however bitter your hinterland, to grab something or someone good when you see it, and to hell with caution. Which is rather beautiful.

 

box office 01243 781312 to 6 Dec
Rating: four

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