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Two, Oldham Coliseum, the review

Joan Davies finds a few problems with a Jim Cartwright play in the hinterlands

Published on October 19th 2009.

Two, Oldham Coliseum, the review

Oldham Coliseum is currently staging local playwright Jim Cartwright’s play ‘Two’. It’s not as gritty as Cartwright’s first play ‘Road’ nor as well known as the eventually filmed ‘The Rise and Fall of Little Voice’. ‘Two’, which won the MEN Best New Drama awards in 1990 is classed as a comedy and set in a familiar British institution: the pub.

The play does seem a little dated. It’s not the costumes and music, a deliberate late 80s time-of-writing choice by the production team. It’s dated in the way that 20-year old plays, which is what this is, often seem more out of touch with our world than those from 50 years ago.

The landlord and landlady are having relationship problems, but try to keep this hidden behind the veneer of bonhomie they must extend to the ‘punters’. The action takes place over the course of one evening and we get to meet quite a few of the regulars, all of whom are in a relationship of sorts, part of a couple: hence the title. It’s not a great advert for relationships though. If you’re single, by the time the interval arrives you could be feeling smug.

All the characters are played by just two actors, Matthew Rixon and Claire Sweeney in this production. These are demanding roles for any actor, and there is little in the performances to disappoint.

Matthew Rixon, seen recently in Pinter’s Caretaker at Bolton Octagon, is a versatile and engaging actor. In this production, as well as portraying the host, he’s amusingly recognisable as a would-be lothario and huggable as a small boy left outside with crisps and pop for too long. He’s insidiously frightening as a man brave enough to bully his girlfriend into having to ask permission for everything, even visiting the toilet. Rixon can act with his back to the audience. His portrayal of a wimp of a husband attempting to get his demanding wife a drink would be successful even in a silent movie.

The writing doesn’t offer Claire Sweeney the chance to display such versatility, but she also covers a range of female characters, bossy, overbearing, uncomplaining, submissive, unsuspicious, loving but rarely carefree.

Both actors have enough time, props and costume alterations to help the audience identify the different characters, but these are not essential given the acting skills on display.

Apart from the drinks orders there’s little specific detail in the writing to tie this play to a particular time; there’s no references to current events or personalities. Yet the play does seem a little dated. It’s not the costumes and music, a deliberate late 80s time-of-writing choice by the production team. It’s dated in the way that 20-year old plays, which is what this is, often seem more out of touch with our world than those from 50 years ago. The mix of passivity and stoicism of many of the women characters was what jarred the most.

Inevitably today there’s a comparison to be made with ‘Early Doors’, also a comedy set in a working class pub. But the themes are different, with Two focusing on a snapshot of the relationships within each couple and largely ignoring their relationship, if they have one, with the rest of the regulars. This may be part of Cartwright’s view of working-class life; he rarely seems to take a look through the rose-tinted community-spirit glasses. Two is much darker than Early Doors.

Keith Orton’s design takes us to one of those rather bright characterless could-be-anywhere pubs where the walls have been knocked down in an attempt at modernity. Enlarged beer bottles and beer mats add a theatrical note to the design but neither add to nor detract from the performance. There are no props. The actors mime serving drinks and taking money, yet we hear the sound of glasses being set down and tills ringing. The timing of this is very clever and a novelty at first, but wears a bit thin and encourages the audience to look out for mistakes. While it serves a purpose at the end I’m not fully convinced that sound-enhanced miming is more than just a neat trick.

Oldham Coliseum is a very welcoming theatre. People seem to feel at home there. It draws a loyal local audience but its accessibility and reputation means that it pulls in an audience from way beyond the Oldham borders. This production was well-received the night I was there, but there are one or two doubts about it which remain as we make our way back to Manchester. And the way the female characters are written still grates.

Two runs from 8 – 24 October at the Oldham Coliseum. Tickets can be booked by calling the box office on 0161 624 2829 or online at www.coliseum.org.uk.

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