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Criterion Theatre review: Underneath the Lintel




Underneath the Lintel at the Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, at 7.30 until Saturday September 4.


By Chris Arnot

Sometime in the mid-1930s a book was borrowed from Earlsdon Library by a pupil from King Henry V111 School. It was finally returned when it was found among his possessions after his death

half a century later.

The book was The Senior Commoner by Julian Hall. And the borrower would go on to become the senior librarian at Hull University. Oh yes, and a much-quoted poet. His name was Philip Larkin.

Along the road and round the corner from what is now the Carnegie Community Library, another much-treasured Earlsdon institution is showing a play that evolves from the return of a book 113 years overdue. Yes, more than twice as long as the one “borrowed” by the light-fingered Philip.

In the Criterion’s case, the library is somewhere in provincial Holland and the librarian is one of those frustrated middle-aged men who has done little and travelled nowhere. Until now.

The return of the dusty and somewhat battered Baedeker travel book after a century or so sparks something deep within him.

Questions for a start: who returned it and why was it so late? The only evidence he has to go on is a crumpled bookmark and an unclaimed ticket for a Chinese laundry. What the librarian doesn’t seem short of is money. Then again, he hasn’t had much to spend his wages on.

Having been sacked from the library for taking so much time off, he has hired a theatre to tell the story of his journey into major cities in search of clues and, more importantly, insights into a world beyond bookshelves.

The plot is complex. The setting is sparse. To the right a big screen projects scenes from his visits to New York and Beijing, London and Sydney. To the left an old-fashioned backboard is chalked with dates, including 1986 when the play is set.

An equally old-fashioned date-stamper dangles from the librarian’s neck.

Time and space are important in Glen Berger’s play. One of its messages would seem to be the need to make the most of your life when you have the chance. And that seems particularly telling at a time when pandemic restrictions have begun to ease. We need some “expansive moments in restricted lives”, as WH Auden put it in a different context.

One thing’s for certain about the Criterion’s production. Under Richard Warren’s direction, Jon Elves, pictured, put on an extraordinary one-man show on the opening night. He somehow engaged the audience for an hour and three-quarters – longer than an entire Premier League match, plus injury time with no half-time

break.

It was a performance worthy of a theatre 20 miles down the road in the birthplace of a poet and playwright quoted even more often than Auden and Larkin.


Barbara Goulden adds:

I couldn't agree with Chris Arnot more about the strength of this mesmerising performance by Criterion actor Jon Elves.

With no natural break in the narrative you have to stay focused - not always easy in my case and I would have welcomed a swift gin and tonic to collect my thoughts - but wow!

What a masterclass in acting.