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Criterion Theatre, Coventry, review: Two

Two, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, to April 2.

Review by Barbara Goulden

If you see nothing else this month then try very hard to get along to the Criterion in the next few days to watch Gareth Cooper and Cathryn Bowler in a production called, simply, Two.

There are only two actors in this play...but this brilliant pair play a host of characters, switching from one to the other in a series of handbrake turns that will leave you breathless one minute, hysterical with laughter the next, and, by the end of the evening, emotionally drained.

The little theatre in Earlsdon has been transformed into a bar for this play set in the 1990s and written by Jim Cartwright. We in the audience can order drinks before taking seats at our own small tables, and so are in the midst of the action throughout.

It's a short play superbly directed by Helen Withers. But it's so intense that I would have welcomed a brief interval simply to catch my breath before the next roller-coaster scene.

There is so much to take in as this combative landlord and landlady serve pints before seamlessly sliding off stage only to reappear as some of their own customers.

As the landlady, Cathryn is brittle and sarcastic to her husband. In response he is critical and hateful to her while maintaining an affable front to the crowd.

But within a few minutes of pulling the first angry pints and stamping down to the imaginary cellar, Gareth sheds several years and reappears through the front door as a track-suit wearing Jack the Lad ladies' man, outrageously flirting with members of the audience before the arrival of his long-suffering, handbag-cutching girlfriend. It's all so convincing that you really do think the "girlfriend" is a completely different woman. And she needs to keep her hands firmly on her handbag because all this "boyfriend" of hers has is ten pence for the jukebox and the ability to disco dance.

It's even more remarkable when in another vignette towards the end of the play, Gareth turns himself into a sobbing child.

Long before this touching moment comes a set piece of palpable menace. The grinning mine host of earlier in the play, along with his shrewish "giving as good as she gets" wife, once again slide away from the optics only to reappear moments later in the roles of a submissive, terrified wife under the control of an abusive husband who chumily nods and raises his glass to other customers - that's us in the audience - while hissing venom at her every action. She needs his permission simply to go to the ladies...and what has she been talking about in there, he demands to know!

Throughout this scene the tension oozes from Cathryn's character, freezing the souls of everyone watching.

Is there nothing this pair can't do?

I rather think not. See this if you can.

CHRIS ARNOT writes: I felt immediately comfortable nursing a pint at a table close to the stage while savouring the setting. We’d been transported back to a northern public bar in the late 80s or early 90s.

Oasis were booming from the jukebox, two bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale nestled near the spirit dispensers. Ash-trays had been laid at the centre of proper pub tables of intricate metalwork topped with weathered wood. Wine was £1 a glass, yet some women were still asking for Babycham. More mild ale than bitter seemed to be gushing from the pumps.

For those pulling the pumps, however, bitterness was all too evident. No, it wasn’t directed towards the customers. Forced smiles and false conviviality were handed over the bar with the glasses and tankards. Then landlord and landlady would revert to lengthy silences interrupted by occasional vicious threats.

The reason for the hostility underlying the hospitality was revealed towards the end of this one-act, two hander, shortly before the ‘Two’ stars - Cathryn Bowler and Gareth Cooper - took a well-deserved bow at the end of a memorable evening.

Director Helen Withers had had them moving effortlessly from one role to another, changing mood and costume with remarkable speed. Jovial repartee with the audience one minute, vindictive intimacy with each other the next.

The revelatory climax of the play turned out to be surprisingly touching. By that time we’d been given insights into lives that, in most cases, were far from comfortable. Altogether a memorable evening.

Time, perhaps, for a lengthy discussion in the bar next door over a pint and a glass of red for “the missus” that cost a bit more than a quid.


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