Sunday, 2 November 2008

No Man's Land at the Duke Of York's

Small theatre, four very large personalities (well, three until you realise that the least recognisable, Nick Dunning, is far from out of his depth). I went in having been awed by The Birthday Party and bored by The Caretaker - in other words, ignorant.

In two acts, Michael Gambon's Hirst first drinks his way through reticent after-hours conversation with a lowly guest, Spooner (David Bradley) before goading and growling at him in the second. It's an object lesson in how to be a rude, self-interested host beneath the thinnest pretence of courtesy.

Yet both men are poets, it emerges, and the dreaful insecurities and nebulous existential truths coming home to roost for Hirst are offset by this abused comrade. He sees the danger in a couple of thugs, usurpers and puppeteers more sinister and dangerous than any rudeness on Hirst's part. Bradley's great moment is a peroration at the end in which he begs for the opportunity to take up a position in Hirst's employ. In humble opposition to the leech-like son-figure of David Walliams' Foster or Nick Dunning's manipulative manservant Briggs he offers self-deprecating companionship and service to a man who needs it, though he may not deserve it. It's intense but far from hectoring.

This production is all done in a single set with some very carefully arranged lighting. The 'subliminal' music is superfluous - it might as well be coming from St. Martin's Lane. Best of all I liked the set design, rather modern but with a thick burgundy carpet and an echt-1970s bar at its centre (groaning with drink), a melange in tune with the temperamentally layered script. The Duke Of York's theatre seating is fantastically uncomfortable in the great, enduring tradition of impecunious West End theatres though.

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