Review by Paul Nelson
ONCE again the outer fringes of the London theatre has provided a play that
not only provides food for thought but does the decent thing, gives full throated
entertainment and excellent opportunities for that fanciful element, acting.
This time it's Two Up at the tiny Union Theatre, a play with a deep insight into prison life, written by Michael Holland who, it is startling to learn, was himself sentenced to 20 years for armed robbery.
Exactly as you would suspect, the dialogue in the play is raw and has the unmistakeable ring of truth. In this case, it is also peppered with an enormous amount of humour as well as a direct insight into the sheer boredom and irritation of being incarcerated and its destructive effect on the personality.
The title refers to the practice of two prisoners sharing one cell and its consequential hazards or benefits, and the focus decidedly is on Ted, a charming, reckless, married guy who is doing ten years for armed robbery.
Ted has a cellmate George, an educated rogue with a genuine likeable personality who is looked up to by the other prisoners because of his brains.
Ted's wife, Sarah, like Penelope, is waiting impatiently for her husband's return. Unlike Penelope, she has little to occupy her mind between prison visits. Spending her time with workmates and friends, it is natural for Ted to become suspicious when she fails to answer every telephone call because she is not at home. Sarah isn't playing away, but through the circumstance of Ted's prison sentence she too is incarcerated, and this Ted fails to fully grasp.
Eventually, convinced that his wife is playing away, their prison visits become mutually painful experiences of distrust on Ted's part and despair on Sarah's. It is hardly surprising then, when Sarah, goaded on by her good time girl friend Lisa, actually does experiment in another relationship, which hardly surprising, is a disaster leaving her more isolated than before.
Hospitalised with depression, becoming more and more morose, Ted falls into a moody violence that alienates the rest of the prisoners on his cell block and their 'association' time, the few hours they are allowed to freely mix with each other, is marred and becomes heavy going instead of relaxing.
As I mentioned this situation gives tremendous scope for the actor, and the play, never descending into melodrama, remains a tightly observed and quite riveting piece of work.
The performances from all the cast are flawless.
Jane, the prison warder, has the tough exterior necessary for the job and without being softhearted and therefore as a character softheaded, provides the helpless sympathy Ted cannot accept.
George the cellmate is also severely tried. The easy relationship between the two men, while severely strained, never cracks because of what can only be described as George's compassion. You are still aware he has his own domestic problems too, as well as the irksome daily stretches of the void that is prison life.
Tommy, a younger hard man, has little time for anyone. You expect that on release he will immediately re-offend, there is no alternative for him. It is a powerful character.
Jimmy too is a feckless law-breaker. This character provides through his experience of life on the streets some home truths and perspicacity, most of it you will find, amusing. Laughing heartily while experiencing a play like this made me feel almost guilty.
A great deal of warmth and sympathy for Sarah (pictured right) is created by the flighty attitude of her friend Lisa. Against her better judgement, Sarah deeply realises that a ten-year stretch of loneliness for her is just as unbearable as it is for Ted. There seems to be no way out and rack my brains as I did, I could not see an answer to the question, other than the improbable melodrama of her embracing a closed religious order. These however are real streetwise people. Romantic ideas of that kind could never seriously receive consideration.
Trog (Trevor) is the enigmatic prisoner. Meekly he is the dogsbody, the butt of the jokes of the others. Constantly the audience is drawn to this figure of quiet resignation whose freedom is imminent, looked forward to, but still hopeless. Knowing little else, he is well aware he will return.
The kingpin of all this is, of course, Ted. His deterioration from the tough man who can handle any situation to a mentally destroyed and desperate human being is well drawn. Of all the excellent performances, this is the most difficult and is carried with an enormous degree of confidence and expertise. The actor deserves, along with his colleagues, much more exposure, indeed one can say this of the play.
By mixing all these characters together as expertly as has been done, it is easy to imagine that the play is entertaining. Just how entertaining I invite you to find out for yourself. I cannot believe anyone will be remotely disappointed by the piece.
Two Up has been directed with great care to detail by Ben de Wynter. The author and cast must have a good respect for his talent, the entire being such an engaging and nigh perfect night out.
Two Up by Michael Holland, Directed by Ben de Wynter, Design and Lighting by Chris Thomas and George Mouskoundi, WITH: Tyrone Atkins (Ted), Andy Michell (George), Daniella Foreman (Sarah), George Russo (Tommy), Grant Davis (Jimmy), Ian Groombridge (Trog), Melissa Wilks (Lisa), Hazel Lucas (Jane). Presented by Emma Itches Productions at the Union Theatre, Union Street, Southwark, London SE1. Tickets 020 7261 9876.
GUIDE TO PICTURES: Top photo shows Tyrone Atkins (as Ted), while second photo shows Dani Foreman (Sarah) and Melissa Wilks (The friend). Both photos kindly supplied by stagephoto.co.uk