Theatre: End of the Road. but What a Journey ; Endgame Albery LONDON Ladybird Royal Court Upstairs LONDON When the Night Begins Hampstead LONDON
Bassett, Kate, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
This is Theatreland after some kind of apocalypse. The Albery's stage curtain may be red velvet in the grand old style, but it's also filthy and torn. And behind it lies the bleakest room imaginable, where four decrepit persons play out Samuel Beckett's Endgame - going round in circles, wanting to leave, dying very slowly. The room suggests some poky hovel: just soot-grey walls and two small windows. Simultaneously, this is a vast, almost Dante- esque chamber of despair. The walls go on for ever, extending into the shadowy void above.
Now, one may not have pictured Lee Evans popping up in this vision of gloom, and his presence might sound like a lamentable case of mere celebrity casting. But Matthew Warchus's West End production is outstanding and astutely judged, with Evans as the hobbling servant Clov, circling around Michael Gambon's blind, wheelchair- bound Hamm.
Beckett and Evans are not, after all, such an odd coupling. The playwright's tragicomedies are strewn with the shards of vaudevillian routines, and Evans is an extraordinarily talented clown from the old mould. What he proves here, in an unstarry performance, is that he can sharply alternate between agonies and great gags. One moment his mouth gapes wide in a Munch- like, silent scream, the next he's gabbing away again as if nothing has happened. And this being Beckett, of course, nothing has.
Twitching and staggering in thermal leggings, Evans looks like a ragged simpleton; shaking his fists in flurries of rage at Hamm's demands, at his own folly and at life, he is poignant and ludicrous.
Meanwhile, Gambon is fantastically grotesque, with dark glasses, drooping red cheeks, and a wet tongue turning words over in a dark mouth. His Irish accent (unlike Evans's) comes and goes, but this appears to be deliberate and rather intriguing as Hamm tries to hold himself together by fitfully posturing as a grandiose storyteller and Lear-like tragedian. Gambon could, perhaps, convey more cruelty as the overlord, yet playing things down is surely true to this anti- dramatic piece.
Though Nell and Nagg, the old folks in the dustbins, aren't so interesting, this 1950s classic is remarkably fresh, with humour and humanity emerging strongly amid all the depressed cynicism. The existential significance of the piece comes over without straining. At the same time, with programme notes about Beckett's marriage, his paralysing grief at his father's death and his mother's "savage loving", the personal aspects seep through too. In Clov and Hamm, you can see a frustrated wife and writer-husband, a mother and baby, and a son yearning to be free of his sire.
Unfortunately, placed alongside this, Ladybird by Russia's Vassily Sigarev (translated by Sasha Dugdale), looks immature and roughly crafted. …