First published in The Times, Monday August 17 2015
“This whole world is the Titanic and we’re all along for the ride. The only escape is through illusion.” It is always exasperating when a piece of theatre starts explicitly spelling out its themes, as though to an audience of dunces. It isn’t, however, the script – adapted by Steve King from the Bulgarian writer Hristo Boytchev – that sinks this absurdist drama. The fundamental problem with Russell Bolam’s production, which features John Hannah in his first stage role in 25 years, is that it singularly fails to invest Boytchev’s exploration of reality and illusion with any real magic or sense of the numinous.
In outline the play is like a cross between Waiting for Godot and the existential television drama Lost. We meet four tramps huddled together at an abandoned railway station. They intend, one day, to move on, but like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, they appear trapped in a temporal limbo, sustained by scraps thrown from trains and endless bickering.
We’re made to wait for Hannah’s appearance, but when his character duly arrives, rising from a coffin-like wooden box and referencing Houdini, the actor seems as listless and under-directed as the rest of the cast. Even the feats of illusion and sleight of hand tricks his character employs to rouse his new companions from their inertia are performed with a distinct lack of flourish.
Unlike Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree, currently being revived at the Traverse, at no point does Bolam’s production hypnotise its audience into seeing things that aren’t there. The scene in which Hannah’s Harry entrances the others into taking up imaginary violins and performing a miraculous string quartet could have been a coup de théâtre to rival the final scene of Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, but under Bolam’s lacklustre direction, this sequence, like so much else in the play, inspires little more than a shrug of the shoulders.