Wednesday 23rd May 2018 at Harrogate Theatre.
Reform Theatre Company’s production of Jim Cartwright’s Two is a snappy peep into the world of pub life, business ownership, the shenanigans of punters and fraying relationships with plenty of northern wisecracking in the mix. Set in a pub in the eighties, there’s an emphasis on the lively rapport of the seasoned bartenders from the very beginning, allowing their descent into marital turmoil to be all the more impactful for having seen their comical back biting towards one another morph into genuine boiling point anger and frustration. Part comedy, part drama and part multi-roling extravaganza, this two hander sees the cast play a range of characters from varied walks of life; elderly and dotty; young and foolish; middle-aged and troubled – it’s a constantly moving display of anything from suffering to relish. Yet even with some solid performances and impressive quick changes, this production doesn’t quite bring Two to life with consistent quality, and that’s partly down to the writing of this 1989 play.Directed by Keith Hukin and performed by Hukin in all male roles and Susan Mitchell in all female roles, this is certainly an ambitious and engaging production, and it’s always impressive to watch a cast conjure such disparate characters so swiftly. Timing is kept sharp and Hukin’s direction sees some skilful shifts in movement and physicality to signal new characters along with some token costume and prop pieces. Mitchell’s characters are generally loud, larger than life folk with the odd addition of more gentle characters – and one particularly sympathetic character who does a wonderful job of tugging at heart strings. Her best performances are the landlady and the abused girlfriend, mostly because the writing for many of her comic characters isn’t great, but Mitchell also demonstrates some crisp comic timing and delivers a sharp charm in her passive aggressive exchanges with husband as the landlady countered beautifully by a sweet, earthy rapport with the customers.
Hukin showcases greater variety in his roles as his characters are more generously scripted and have more shades of darkness and light; his depictions of the little boy lost, the doddery grandpa and the sinisterly calm abuser are by far the best of Hukin’s performances – his depiction of the ageing lech is humorous but overly long, losing some momentum by the end of the sketch. There are some excellent dramatic exchanges between the pair as the pub owners harbouring shared tragedy that one is desperate to talk about while the other refuses – but the fact that the dramatic exchanges between broken relationships are the best moments of this piece place it in a perplexing position for me. The set-up would suggest an emphasis of light-hearted fun and clear comic roots, but the strengths don’t match that spec, favouring the fiery or disturbing dramatic scenes of domestic trauma – it makes the show worthwhile and impactful, but it does seem to highlight that the comedy of this piece is not quite strong enough or that the characters are perhaps too dated now.This production is a real mixed bag for me. There are some big laughs gained, but not quite often enough. There are some excellent performances, but there are also some flat performances when the characters are a little too under-developed to inspire a connection in any direction. There are some strong moments in the script which celebrate word play but also demonstrate an eye for great drama and an ability to shock, but the script is also forced and obvious at times, and not always for comic impact. Generally speaking, this piece does feel a little safe and dated by contemporary standards; had the cast toyed with playing characters of the opposite gender or updated them a little, this could be made more engaging overall – and had there been a better placement of the funniest characters across acts one and two, the first act might have been more impressive. But as it stands, there’s an unfortunate imbalance; Act 1 offering an intriguing, darkly comical insight into the troubled dynamic between the landlord and landlady alongside some mildly entertaining glimpses of the locals, while Act 2 features all the best bits; the drama, the tension, the biggest laughs, the best characters and the ability to make you sit up straight and take notice – I only wish the first half were more akin to the second!Two is a solid reflection of popular multi-roling observational comedies which are more commonly left on the shelves in favour of new work now – or a style which is most often adopted by studio or fringe work and therefore play out in their simplest form unless the company takes the bull by the horns to thrash out a new, refreshing take. There’s a capable cast at the helm here and there are some very worthwhile performances, but uneven quality of the writing across the piece means that there are also some less impressive and at times flat performances to sit through to get to the parts that will shock, move or tickle you.
Two is a Reform Theatre Company and Harrogate Theatre production in association with Middlesbrough Theatre. It plays at Harrogate Theatre until 26th May 2018, after which it will continue to tour until June 9th 2018 – dates, venues and tickets can be found here.