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Bowles and Phillips conjure an evening of unexpected pleasure



Review by David Munro

HAD someone not already appropriated it, this play could have been more aptly entitled Strangers On A Train for that is the premise of Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man.

A middle aged man, Paul (Peter Bowles) is sitting in a train carriage opposite Martha (Sian Phillips). Paul is a successful novelist and Martha has a copy of his latest novel – The Unexpected Man - in her handbag.

Paul is going to his daughter’s wedding to an older man he disapproves of; the purpose of Martha’s journey is unexplained.

Neither address the other until the very end of the evening and the play consists of their thoughts expressed in alternating monologues – ought one to be seen reading the novel when the author is across the carriage from one? Should my daughter be marrying a man old enough to be her father? What does my life’s work add up to?

And so on and so forth...

Paul’s ponderous pontificating on Life, Parenthood, Art and Literature (especially his own works) are nicely counterpointed by Martha’s more amused urbane view of herself and her life. This culminates in an explosion of laughter when they ultimately get to speaking to each other that nicely rounds off the piece.

As will be appreciated, such externalisation of thoughts and emotions need a very deft touch if they are not to become tedious and sententious.

In this respect, Yasmin Reza is admirably served by her cast, both of whom give her lines their full value and manage to gloss over the more tendentious moments of the evening with skill and grace.

Peter Bowles makes Paul’s inner anguishing on his life and his growing awareness of his carriage companion and her possible identity – he surmises she is the mistress of a conductor going to give him his conge - compelling listening, while Sian Phillips gives Martha a charm and sincerity which makes her final approach toward what may or may not turn out to be a relationship conceivable.

It is an evening where the pleasure comes from watching two consummate actors displaying their considerable gifts with dexterity and lightness of touch.

The structure of the play seems designed to act as a showcase for talent and Peter Bowles and Sian Phillips more than rise to the occasion making the process of juxtaposing their monologues, which could have appeared disjointed and distracting, into a seamless whole.

While some of the credit for this must go to the director, Deborah Bruce, I felt nevertheless that, with two lesser talents, this could have been a very boring hour and a half.

As it was, although The Unexpected Man is not a perfect play, Peter Bowles and Sian Phillips made it an evening to remember.

The Unexpected Man. By Yasmin Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton.
Directed by Deborah Bruce
Designer – Imogen Cloet.
Lighting – Natasha Chivers.
Sound – Rich Walsh.
CAST: Peter Bowles; Sian Phillips.
Presented by Theatre Royal Bath Productions.
Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 IQJ
Tues, May 3 – Sat, May 7, 2005
Evenings 7.45pm
Matinees Wed. & Sat. 2.30pm.
Box Office: 0870 060 6651

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