Review: A rapturous response to a truly beautiful play on Coventry stage

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Two at the Criterion Theatre, Coventry, directed by Helen Withers

'As for the acting, well, I’ve rarely seen finer': Two by Jim Cartwright
'As for the acting, well, I’ve rarely seen finer': Two by Jim Cartwright

There’s a certain quality of silence that sometimes falls in a theatre, when the audience and the action on stage are in perfect harmony and they’re like one body, each completely engaged with the other. It’s a golden moment, often looked for, but not often found. It was there, often, during the opening night of Jim Cartwright’s 1989 play Two. The proverbial pin could be heard to drop again and again.

Two actors (Gareth Cooper and Cathryn Bowler) play fourteen different characters. At the heart of the play are the Landlord and Landlady. We are their customers, seated pub style at tables. One by one the characters who inhabit this pub pop in for a drink. On the way they might tell us something about themselves, or else we overhear their conversations.

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The play is often achingly sad, and sometimes quite frightening, but throughout there is a thick seam of gold in the dry, self-deprecating humour. There are the couples who have stuck it out together, God knows why, except that being together is just a mite more bearable than being alone. There are those on their own, one of whom tells us he talks every day to his dead wife. She’s no ghost, but lives in their teapot and is the only thing that keeps him going.

Up to a point you could say the characters are caricatures. There’s the sex-starved wife who fantasises about big strong men and who bullies her weedy husband. There’s the little boy whose dad has left him outside and has gone off somewhere having forgotten him. There’s the nasty little bully who terrorises his wife but is in turn terrified that she will show him up for what he is. But caricatures only go so far, and these characters go much further.

Running through this everyday scene of small hopes and despairs is the relationship between the Landlord and Landlady. Often it is tortuous, each throwing barbed remarks at the other, their nerves on edge, their teeth bared. But gradually we come to see that they too are bearing a cross of their own grief. I won’t tell you what it is, but it’s the twist in the play and it was so real it brought tears to my eyes.

As for the acting, well, I’ve rarely seen finer. Gareth Cooper and Cathryn Bowler handle the quick changes needed with ease. Never for a moment do they miss a beat. The play and the production treat these little characters with the dignity they deserve but so rarely get.

There’s a difference between sympathy and sentimentality, and this play and production stay well on the right side of it. Watching it somehow made me feel better about myself and to love my fellow human beings a little more, not because I’d laughed at the follies of others, but because the real dignity of everyday life, its narrow gains and little battles won, were shown for what they often are, remarkable acts of courage in the face of existential despair.

It's a beautiful play, beautifully played, and it received a rapturous response. I for one will drink to that.