HOUSE OF COWARDS
by Dannie Abse.
Pentameters Theatre 28 Heath Street Hampstead NW3 6TE To 10 November 2013.
Tue-Sat 8pm Sun 5pm.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7435 3648.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 26 October.
Smoke stacks and absurdity in wry period piece.
Half-a-lifetime ago poet and playwright Dannie Abse was the first person to perform at the new Pentameters Theatre. Now ninety, Abse sees a revival of this 1960 play, a strange, evocative piece, both abstracted from and very much part of a particular society.
Most of the action occurs in a cheap boarding-house, on a street-corner (a detail suggesting something beyond realism) in a northern industrial city. John Dalton’s grey background of belching chimneys evokes this world, as do the performances in Conrad Blakemore’s production.
Abse’s older characters are physically and emotionally afflicted. With varying degrees of scepticism they await the arrival of a star preacher, as loudspeakers are strung along the street for the expected crowds. There’s hope he’ll bring a kind of salvation, but what happens is the local spiv attempts to make a fortune from the scarce tickets, while attempting to flog fake jewellery. A tabloid journalist also tries to exploit a good story.
The only arrival is the negatively-named Nott, looking for a resident long gone from the boarding-house. By turns seeming madman, healer and would-be suicide his significance is sealed in a final line that’s unexpected, unconnected but somehow resonant of much suggested in the play.
There’s plenty of realistic detail. Two young lovers are sharply drawn, their separation caused by his ill-advised way with cash. Novels of the period are brought from the library to fit characters, and the russet elegance of a long-term lodger covers disappointment reinventing the past as something more bearable, while maintaining fragile dignity. It’s the sense of people persevering as they await a potential saviour that creates some optimism amid the bereavement of hopes.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is one library book mentioned, a reminder of the new northern urban grit in English fiction. The Absurdist playwrights also stand behind Abse, Samuel Beckett with Waiting for Godot and, even more, Eugene Ionesco – The Chairs, his 1952 play, also details preparations for an orator who fails everyone. But it’s these failed people, understandably unable to face up to aspects of their lives, who are the heart of the play.
Mr Nott: Christopher Poke.
Ian/Kevin/Ticket Collector: Damian Regan.
Bill Hicks: Michael Halden.
Aled Jenkins: Simon Purse.
Doris Hicks: Victoria Kempton.
Betty Chantry: Eluned Hawkins.
George Hicks: Jack Badley.
Bernard Jay/Burly Man: Jessie Cooper.
Sheila: Charlotte Gallagher.
Director: Conrad Blakemore.
Designer: John Dalton.
Lighting: Richard Hillier.
Costume: Neeley Moore.
Pentameters hosts An Evening with Dannie Abse on Plays and Poetry, with musical interlude, Sunday 3 November at 8pm.