The College Players at Brentwood Theatre
Jim Cartwright's 1989 classic passes a typical evening in the Unicorn, a pub somewhere up north. We meet the publican and his wife, and a cross section of regulars and strangers, rendez-vous and couples, coppings off and fallings out. Lubricated by double Dubonnets and pints of Old Mayor.
The College Players bring a strong cast and a superb set to the piece. Anchored by the landlord and his missus, their life devoted to this place, pulling pints, exchanging banter with the punters, nipping out to fetch glassware or replenish supplies. But it's clear from their snippy bickering that there's little love lost between them; it's not till the unexpectedly dark dénouement that we learn why. This emotionally charged final scene, though it seems to belong in a different play, is excellently done by James Wild and Lindsay Hollingsworth – facing off over the bar, finally united in silhouette, lit only by the neon sign behind them.
Fine cameos from those who drift in and out of the bar. Notably from Jacqueline Parry – memorably fantasising about big men before she's joined by her feeble cloth-capped runt of a husband [Nick Wilkes] – I don't think it helps to have him on early, though. And Pat Gunton as a resentful carer and the butcher's secret admirer; a moving performance of one of the best pieces of writing in the show. Elliott Porte, too, a natty widower outwardly quiet and lonely “having a good time within”. Comedy gold from Bob O'Brien and June Fitzgerald, plus-size pensioners who've come in to eat crisps and watch a Western on the telly [that dates the piece, doesn't it?].
There's Moth from Merseyside [Matt Hudson], with his Liverpool shirt and his roving eye, with his bird Maudie [Kirstin Devlin]; a loathsome bully [Mark Griffiths] and his mousy, abused wife [Lauren Bracewell], and, after closing time, a promising début from Millie Waters as the lost little girl who prompts the publicans to confront their past.
Beautifully written, often poetic, Cartwight's classic is given a polished, enjoyable outing by this talented company, directed by Claire Hilder.
But, like Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges – also sometimes done with a larger cast – it is, as the title suggests, a two-hander. So a major element of the theatrical experience – the versatility, the lightning changes of mood and costume – is inevitably lacking. And it does seem strange to have the busy bar peopled by invisible drinkers, while the turns drift in by ones and twos.