LIGHTS! CAMERA! SLOW BUT FASCINATING ACTION!
We sit as if we are the cinema screen of a run-down fleapit in Massachusetts: we confront the back wall at projector window, and are occasionally dazzled by bright beams in the many blackouts. When showtime music ends, we face 100 empty seats between which two men languidly sweep up popcorn. That’s what we’re here for: to eavesdrop on these ordinary lives in their quiet desperations, desires and diversions, and monitor their interaction with Rose, the only woman: she is promoted to the projection box, lacing up the last 35mill non-digital projector in Worcester County.
A somewhat baleful reputation preceded Annie Baxter’s play, straight over from New York in Sam Gold’s production, with two of his original cast: it may have won a Pulitzer, but its length – three hours plus interval – apparently freaked out the off-Broadway audiences, some of whom wrote indignant messages about having had to sit for 1 hr 40 in the first half alone (though heaven knows, Mr Spielberg often asks far more of us, some of his films amounting almost to a hostage situation).
Anyway, they were quite wrong to leave. They’d have missed the drama of the great popcorn revenge, some of the most expressive body-language ever achieved while wringing out a mop, an electrifying recitation from Ezekiel, and one of the most devastating declarations of unrequited love since Viola. A bald, 35-year-old, lumpen male Viola, but its a full willow-cabin throb.
The two men are Matthew Maher as Sam, a beautifully nuanced unlikely hero. He stolidly holds on to his tiny seniority as he teaches skinny newcomer Avery (Jaygann Ayeh) about clearing up, disinfecting the popcorn machine and – when Rose joins them – about the routine ticket-stub scam which provides “dinner money” (one of our most senior critics admitted in the interval that he remembers that scam well from his distant youth in the old Curzon).
Slowly, for this is a deliberate, atmospheric play full of silences, we see them reflecting on the mess people leave – Avery shocked to see remains of hot-dogs he sold only hours before, Sam more annoyed at “outside food” sneaked in, until he remembers in a moment of existential revelation that he brings his own tamales in to other cinemas. Avery is edgy, troubled, and obsessive about saving the fragile beauty of 35-mill film and warding off digital: he’s a college boy on a break, the one black character but also the only middle-class one, an academic’s son. Sam, slower, enjoys a challenge of “six degrees of separation” in movie casts (“Michael Caine to Britney Spears” etc) which geeky Avery always wins. Rose is grungy, farouche: Sam worships her in silence, Avery yearns only for a lesson on her projector. Unseen, the owner Steve is selling up.
It is a delight, a gentle, subtle slow-building parable of how the inflated movie themes are reflected and outclassed by small real ones: race, ambition, sexual confusion, love, suicidality, family disruption and retardation, betrayal, honour and dishonour among thieves. People will call the long silences “Pinteresque” but they are far better, because rather than cynical menace they fill with subtler hopes, doubts and astonishments. Rather than laughing at losers in The Caretaker, here we root for them, want redemption. We nearly get it, and there is certainly a beautiful ironic joke at the end: Avery, wedded to the doctrine of celluloid’s truthfulness, gets some old film cans and they’re all animations or CGI-rich: Rugrats, Star Trek, Honey I Shrunk the Kids. As to why he’s carting them off , no spoilers. It’s a surprisingly good yarn.
Box office 020 7452 3000 to 15 June