Two (Ensemble Theatre)
March 1 – 2
Jim Cartwright’s 1989 two-hander “Two” is set in a rural pub, familiar in its grubby glass and gaudy carpet staging. Its patrons have a familiarity too, as does its married-couple publicans (real-life husband and wife Brian Meegan and Kate Raison).
The couple’s association with the pub is part of their being; they met as children outside it, became engaged there and had their wedding reception there, before eventually buying the establishment. From the moment the show opens, they are bantering. Over time, however, it becomes clear that this is not the playful bickering of a couple in love as a traumatic event is hinted at and then drawn out in ultimate revelation though also initially unrealistically ambiguous dialogue.
Theirs is not the only story being shared, for on a typical night out in a place like this, everyone has a story. The twist is that all fourteen colourful characters are sharply played by either Meegan or Raison. The result may not capture anything of comradery of a night out at the local, but it does showcase a master class of acting particularly from Meegan who transitions between loveable, unlikeable, elderly and youthful characters with ease in the self-contained vignettes.
Just as there is no narrative arc, the character stories are told in a potpourri of approaches. Some are like monologues, others as if half of a conversation and one comes with some audience interaction. Often they come with deliberate padding, as is required between stories to allow for albeit quick character transformations backstage.
The extremes of patron stories are evident from the show’s early scenes, when we are taken from an aging woman enjoying a drink as repute from the physical and mental toll of caring for a husband in medical need, to the cheesy flirtation and daggy dance moves of man out with his long suffering girlfriend. The contrasts are also emphasised by the sometimes stark transitions. Indeed, the stories could perhaps be better curated together, not just to fit in with the course of an evening in the establishment; taking the audience from sentimental to shocking, via some humour, results in some audience members not always knowing how to react, which detracts from the impact of some of its more powerful scenes. Also, some clichés and an all-too-quick first step to relationship resolution are a little bothersome.
Jim Cartwright is one of Britain’s most prolific and well-known playwrights and “Two” certainly has a Northern pub feel to both its aesthetic and sensibility. Localising the play with an Australian flavour is perhaps not even necessary given the commonality of some of its stories and themes of human frailty and being trapped by circumstance. Its 1980s setting is, however, clear, from the 20-cent jukebox play price as much as its step-back-in-time celebration of the music if plays…. Not to mention the Riccodonna on offer over the bar. However, while the miming of props may be understandable in the case of imagined interactions of rapid-fire service from behind the bar, in scenes where the action moves to the tables and chairs at which patrons are drinking, pretend glasses are somewhat of a distraction from the quality performances of these two versatile actors.
The show is a tight 70 minutes duration, though it seems like longer perhaps due to number of stories shared. Like a short story collection, its anthology of tales will surely feature some favourites for individual audience members, which will cause its overall experience to ebb and flow. Ultimately, however, while its overall craftedness comes across as sometimes somewhat sloppy, its acting is undeniably excellent and perhaps worth the price of admission alone.