Venue: The Drama Barn
Two is a 1989 play written by Jim Cartwright, based around a series of vignettes set in a pub. With only two cast members, this was not a play you could cast lightly, and I’m pleased to say Evie Jones and Max Manning were up to the task. They managed to convey the heft of the play, the highs and lows of simple lives, while still retaining a light touch.
Cartwright’s a Lancashire lad and in many ways adheres to that great tradition of gritty Northern drama so prominent in the latter half of the 20th century. However, he deviates from this genre’s often brutal realism, injecting a level of gentle, thought-provoking lyricism. Fuelled by Brecht, there are stream of consciousness monologues and an avant-garde touch, which provide a fertile element for both director and actors to play with. A good choice on the part of director, David Bolwell.
Two offers a ‘slice of life’, or rather slices. Focused primarily around the pub’s landlord couple, the play is interspersed with various different characters, highlighting the touching, challenging and extraordinary qualities in the sheer ordinariness of everyday people. This is no easy feat for a cast of two – chopping and changing between characters and yet still maintaining the flow and spirit of the play. Jones and Manning gave determined and thoughtful performances, showing their acting chops, providing an impressive array of northern accents and commanding the stage in the way that quietly confident actors do.
For instance, Jones was able to humorously capture an outwardly prim woman’s overwhelming, carnal lust for ‘big men’, as well as the wrenching fear of a woman crushed by and trapped in an abusive, controlling relationship. Manning balanced the buzzing charm and inherent uselessness of the womanising Moth, and his monologue as the old, lonely man ebbed and flowed from sadness to touching contentment.
Yet both Jones and Manning seemed most comfortable playing the two main characters, the landlord couple, which is understandable given their greater prominence in the play. The couple’s outwardly jolly demeanour is undercut by something deep and rotting, lying unacknowledged in their relationship. Their incessant sniping, initially amusing turns nasty and as the play unfolds, the bad blood intensifies and an implosion is inevitable. Yet I found the release a little damp, the sheer power of the uncorked bottle of raw emotions not fully released. Some catharsis was there, of course, but I feel Manning and Jones didn’t quite convey just how hollow and animalistic a person can become through intense grief.
The set was a winner – managing to capture the sense of a pub, warm and enticing when it’s full of an evening, a bit dingy and stale when everyone’s gone. Muted browns, dated wallpaper of questionable taste, dark, well-worn wooden furniture and fun features like those little plaques and pictures of certain brands of booze. The snippets of well-chosen 80s tunes added to the period mood and, yet again, done with that all important light touch.
Were Cartwright a less adept and balanced playwright, Two would have dragged. It’s good material, highlighted by good actors. However, I can’t help wondering what the play could have been had the characters been fully embodied. Of course, the reality is that everyone who’s involved is a student with a hefty workload, and being able to shoulder a play like this so successfully is impressive. However, a bit more natural comic timing, amping the electricity up a notch, well, that would have seen the production soar. Moments of audience engagement were fun but lacked an element of their full comic potential. As with the ‘fat old’ couple. They were endearing but I think it could have had some extra spark had the humour really been tangled out and played on.
Jones and Manning had clearly rehearsed hard, seizing the challenge and enjoying it. But I couldn’t help feeling an element of loose spontaneity, pure zest, was lost. When everything’s so on cue, so on point and precise, the rawness and immediacy of a performance can become a little diluted. They’ve got the fire in their bellies, and can afford to go off beat occasionally. Like the best jazz musicians, keeping the rhythm but in a way you don’t expect, swinging and reflecting the messy soup that makes up real lives.
All I can say is that this made for an enjoyable evening. I’m only offering such precise criticism because I do think they are capable of adding that extra verve. It was good, considered theatre, classic on the one hand, avant-garde on the other. Two is short and (bitter)sweet; a commendable showcase of DramaSoc talent, and a truly promising introduction to this term’s offerings.