THE PRIVATE EAR, THE PUBLIC EYE
Malvern Theatres, Wednesday 25th September, 2013
Peter Shaffer, best known as the writer of Amadeus and Equus, penned this brace of one-act plays at the outset of the Swinging 60s. The inestimable Original Theatre Company follow their barnstorming production of Birdsong with this radical change of pace, and what we get is a couple of hours of well-presented comedy-drama that bear up rather well after 50 years.
The Private Ear
Ted (Rupert Hill) dances into best mate Bob’s bedsit to do his friend a favour: Bob has a girl coming around for a meal and Ted has been enlisted as chef – well, someone’s got to open the cans of soup and marrowfat peas. Ted is a man of the age, with his polo neck sweater and his sharp suit. He is all patter and obviously does very well with ‘the birds’ and their ‘bristols’. Rupert Hill gets Ted’s energy just right and when he confesses to being a Tory, we are not surprised. What’s dismaying is how current his deplorable views are (strongly anti-union, for example) and what is very telling is how he tempers his views in order to impress Doreen (the ‘bird’) – to win her vote, you could say. By contrast, Bob is skinny and socially awkward. We first see him in his vest and pants and dressing-gown as he frets about his impending date. Steven Blakeley keeps Bob on the right side of tolerability, letting his passion for classical music override his gawkiness. His scenes with Siobhan O’Kelly’s Doreen are delightful and it is here amid moments of physical comedy, Shaffer surprises us with Bob’s heartfelt exposition on the human condition, that we weren’t made to look at entries in ledgers all day, were not built for the repetitive nature of our jobs.
The Public Eye
Before our very eyes, both Blakeley and the set are transformed before the second play can get under way. At this moment our appreciation of Hayley Grindle’s design is doubled. It’s an ingenious transition that reminds us of the artifice of what is going on. Blakeley becomes private detective Julian Cristoforou, a sort of Inspector Clouseau figure in appearance. He has been hired by Charles Sidley (Jasper Britton) to follow Mrs Sidley (Siobhan O’Kelly) whom he suspects of having an affair. Cristoforou appears at Sidley’s office to give his report. What unfolds is slightly absurd and bordering on the farcical. While Blakeley and O’Kelly are equally good, this piece is dominated by Jasper Britton’s well-observed Sidley, with his double takes and blustering – the comic timing is perfect. Director Alastair Whatley keeps energy levels high so that Shaffer’s pieces, which alone might seem little more than extended comic sketches, presented together give us a look back at the views and social mores of a different time, attitudes that are alien and familiar in equal measure. There are subtle links between the two pieces, helping to unify the evening. All four actors give well-honed characterisations but for me it is Britton’s Sidley that stands out, as a man forced to change his ways in order to save his marriage. The double bill is worth seeing for the quality of its performances and presentation but also for hints at the greatness this playwright was to go on and create.