Saturday, January 18, 2020

Review: 'Beckett Triple Bill' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 17th January 2020

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Joan Rivers once said "There is nothing funny about ageing. It is rotten and depressing. Anyone who tells you otherwise just hasn't been paying attention." After seeing director Trevor Nunn's Samuel Beckett triple bill at the Jermyn Street Theatre I'm inclined to agree.

The trio of plays consists of Krapp's Last Tape, Eh Joe and The Old Tune, which add up to just over two hours. The three plays all see elderly men reflecting on their past, each of them haunted by memories that slip through their fingers like sand through an hourglass. Common to all are frequent haunted expressions, as if the characters are coming to a sudden crushing realisation that they've reached a dead end.

If you're not familiar with Beckett, the show throws you in at the deep end with Krapp's Last Tape. The majority of the first 15 minutes consist of the elderly Krapp wandering aimlessly around the stage, groaning at the aches of his body and eating a couple of bananas. Propulsive drama this ain't, but it serves a function. You have to become accustomed to Beckett's rhythms and, most importantly, pay close attention to the performer.

James Hayes in Krapp's Last Tape
The emotional core of these plays doesn't lie in grandiose gestures or angry exclamations, but in the flicker of an eyebrow or the quiver of a lip. These are fiercely buttoned-up characters, each of them having constructed a fortress around their feelings as they've gotten older.

Niall Buggy in Eh Joe demonstrates this most clearly. Originally written for television, this short play shows the titular Joe sitting on his bed as a sinister voiceover (Lisa Dwan) torments him with memories. Joe neither says nor does anything, simply sits on the bed and reacts to the internal monologue - the action takes place on Buggy's face. Nunn amplifies this in a pretty straightforward way - projecting a live feed of his face onto the wall behind them that gradually zooms in closer and closer. It's a simple, elegant and goddamn effective technique and as the voiceover grows ever more sinister it sent chills up my spine.

Both Krapp's Last Tape and Eh Joe are pretty grim, so ending with The Old Tune is a smart move. This is built around the simple joke of two old men (Niall Buggy and David Threlfall) reminiscing about a golden past that neither can clearly recall. As they pick through their swiss cheese memories cars rumble past - they have been left behind by a society that has no place for old men. In fact, given that the pedestrians they ask for a light ignore them, perhaps they're already dead and just haven't realised yet.

Niall Buggy & David Threlfall in The Old Tune
Whatever the case, this triple bill feels like a warts n' all appraisal of getting old. All three actors on stage are eligible for free bus passes and Trevor Nunn is now 80. This direction and these performances make the show's repeated reflections on distant youth, physical vigour and all those regrets and embarrassments that much more tangible.

The sentimental image of getting old is a Werther's Originals ad: a sun-dappled time of relaxation as you reap the benefits of your legacy. The reality is the slow chipping away of your body and mind as you look in on a world that's moved on without you. It's depressing, the chuckles are rough, but at least it's honest.

The Samuel Beckett Triple Bill is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 8 February. Tickets here.

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