TWO, Ensemble Theatre, 29 March-6 May 2017. Photography by Clare Hawley – all of Kate Raison and Brian Meegan
Written in 1989 by Brit playwright Jim Cartwright, Two was originally set in a pub in the north of England and now, in Australia in 2017, is transposed to small town NSW – but still in 1989. The date and place suit the piece because “the local” being the hub of the community is something that rarely applies these days, and not in big cities.
Curiously, however, the costumes seem to fix the characters in Lancashire or Yorkshire rather than Lithgow or Yass, where women never wore a gabardine mac or headscarf knotted-on-chin to meet their men – who were not clad in cloth caps and overcoats. It’s a distraction Kate Raison and Brian Meegan don’t need while establishing themselves as not only the publicans but also a wide range of their customers. And it’s a tribute to their strength as actors that they quickly overcome this oddity.
The 90-minute play opens with the Landlord and Landlady serving behind their busy bar. They radiate bonhomie across the counter while sotto voce viciously skewering each other with barbs expertly sharpened over the years. It’s a marriage gone very sour and it’s quickly obvious the only thing keeping them together is the pub and the struggle to make a living from it.
In order to also play the various customers, Raison and Meegan (married in real life otherwise they might have killed each other during the rehearsal period) also have to perform a bewildering series of super-quick changes as well as sleight of hand entrances and exits – more like card sharps and their three card tricks. It’s a tricky feat of choreography and director Mark Kilmurry manages to make it seem more natural than a mere party trick while giving the actors the space and breathing room to plausibly take on their fourteen characters.
Not surprising then that on opening night the first ten minutes or so seemed uneven while the pair sought to settle into the rhythm – a smart canter rather than a choppy trot – and also get into the meatier characters and script. There’s no doubt, from audience reaction, that the awful would be Don Juan, Moth (Meegan) is comedy gold as he flirts with victims AKA members of the audience, while Mrs Iger (Raison) out shopping in a break from a housebound husband is wickedly salacious in her passion for the butcher and his big cleaver.
Nevertheless, the less showy characters are actually more powerful: a vignette of sad childhood is sketched in by Meegan as a kid forgotten outside with a packet of crisps while his dad is on the piss. While Alice and Fred would these days be in the clutches of one of the caring acronyms as their worship of Elvis competes with her OCD and his less defined frailty.
Most acute however is the portrait of domestic violence in the form of quietly spoken, charming Roy and mouse-like, fear-radiating Lesley. These two are worth the night and are appallingly current as Roy imagines slights and lovers while Lesley simply cannot say or do the right thing. Strong stuff, beautifully performed.
Meanwhile the Landlord and Landlady stumble from jovial loathing to the dark outskirts of tragedy as a significant anniversary looms. The thing is, while they never stop bickering, they cannot communicate – and in their different ways, this malaise afflicts all their customers. Beneath the laughter is sadness.
Most often one hopes a play had been cut to 90 minutes instead of the nagging tooth ache of flimsily overblown material collapsing beneath the burden of two hours and an interval. In this instance, the array of characters is unusually rich and rather than skipping by or skating over their stories as Cartwright has done, I found myself wishing to know a little more. But it is what it is: an entertaining vehicle for two exceptional actors and that’s what is delivered.
The set (a bleak, dirty pub bar) and costumes (see above) are unconvincing, but in the end, they don’t matter. Kate Raison and Brian Meegan demonstrate why they’re not only rightly popular stars and have been forever, but also very fine and dazzlingly versatile actors too. Recommended.