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All hail a double bill to savour at The Union


Review by Paul Nelson

YOU can always rely on the tiny Union Theatre for an excellent night out and the current offering proves that remark in spades.

Two plays, by Darren Murphy, comprise as good a double bill as I have seen. The first, A Road in Winter, is a magnificent curtain raiser and is obviously a favourite with the company, Penny Dreadful Theatre Co.

Director, Catriona McLaughlin, does it full justice. Miss McLaughlin has been swimming in and out of my horizons for some time now, I remember her as Phil Willmott's assistant at BAC, and she has directed for The Finborough Theatre's Steam Industry (Phil Willmott has more than a little to do with that outfit) to great effect. She is also a member of the Young Vic's Young Directors' Forum, which is unsurprising.

The play, a very short gem, produces two prisoners, they are hostages and they are bound and lying on the floor in a darkened room.

I remember John McCarthy saying on the radio that during his incarceration tied to a radiator the main thing was to create a fantasy world in which to retreat in order to retain one's sanity, and that in essence is what this play depicts.

In this instance, the road in winter is a street in Soho. Miniscule instructions of how to get there from other parts of London and what is to be found there, litter and dead leaves and such are dwelt on in detail to keep a grasp on reality and there is the glimmer of hope that the two will survive.

Their hope, in the very bleakness of their existence, is ultimately shattered, and we realise they are back to square one at best, though the worst is possibly just around the corner.

It is a powerful piece and lasts something like 20 minutes. With little or no movement, and with just the dialogue to aid them, the two actors galvanise the auditorium. You can feel the hairs rising at the back of your head.

The second play, Tabloid Caligula, is a much more sophisticated affair and has, in spite of its deadly premise, quite a lot of welcome humour.

Robert is a punk gangster who is just that little bit over the hill. He is, or was, the King, the best, the wisest, bravest, biggest, intellectualising hood there ever was - Alexander the Great, straddling the known world like a Colossus!

In fact, he was a cheap hood who had dodged and dived and is now still operating in a very modest way under cover of being a salesman of oriental exotic rugs and furnishings.

His protégé, Joe, a willing horse, is disappointingly dumb in the how many beans make five department. He is a strong in the arm and not surprisingly weak in the head.

Still, he cares, tries hard, and in the hands of Ian Groombridge, Joe becomes one of the funniest creations the theatre has seen for some time.

Endlessly putting his foot in it, Joe casually remarks that in one of the papers Robert had been likened to Caligula, which had, and still does, touch a very sore spot that enrages Robert.

He refers to Caligula as a nonce who had a thing about his horse, but does not elaborate. Joe wouldn't understand.

This is, in fact, the very funny crux of their relationship, the father figure and the willing student, but there can be no future in it because of Robert's pig-headedness and Joe's stupidity.

Along comes Mary. She has hired Robert, the hit man, to do a spot of work. They have done it and have the Polaroid photo to prove it. When the money has changed hands and the picture is seen by Mary, she screams the house down and the hard part of the play takes over.

I really cannot go against my principles and tell you any more of the plot; it is very clever, cunning and twisted.

Laughter in the theatre turns surely to dismay as the play just as surely turns into a drama. Author, Darren Murphy, has written two diamond encrusted plays and he must be as pleased as the audience that the evening was such a success.

His ear for dialogue is extremely acute, and his fascination for complicated relationships I found spellbinding.

As Joe, Ian Groombridge is perfect, as is Peter Tate as Robert. The only carp I have about the Mary of Jan Hirst is her (I think it's Scouse) accent, and though I strained for a reference in the play as to why, since she should be a natural east Londoner, I do not believe a day trip to Aintree could have been responsible for such a sea-change.

Other than that, and I realise I am being a fuddy-duddy, Miss Hirst's acting is exemplary.

Similarly is the power generated by the two men in A Road in Winter, Martin Doyle, who has the larger load, and Tamer Doghem.

Therefore, with all that going for it, the evening should not be missed.

The actors handle the plays with the certainty that every word is being savoured by the audience and the evening is one you should witness even if you are run over on your way to the theatre. Get the ambulance to wait.

A Road in Winter and Tabloid Caligula by Darren Murphy. Lighting by Steve Miller. WITH: A Road in Winter (Directed by Catriona McLaughlan) Martin Doyle (Prisoner A), and Tamer Doghem (Prisoner B). Tabloid Caligula (Directed by the Author) Ian Groombridge (Joe), Peter Tate (Robert), Jan Hirst (Mary). Presented by Penny Dreadful Theatre Co., at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1. Tickets 020 7261 9876.

The photograph shows, from left, Peter Tate (as Robert) and Ian Groombridge (as Joe). Kindly supplied by stagephoto.co.uk

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