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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Jermyn Street Theatre


  Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins/ Ph: Polly Hancock

Seeing Samuel Beckett's little-known play All That Fall on stage isn't merely a rare occurrence. It's a first. Moreover, to add to the headline-making excitement of this Off-West End premiere, the tiny but go-getting Jermyn Street Theatre (tucked away in a basement, south of Piccadilly Circus) has big-name stars on board. The cast is led by Dame Eileen Atkins. She is joined by Sir Michael Gambon. Also, the director is Sir Trevor Nunn, former head of the RSC and the National Theatre.
But why, you may ask, has this work never been staged before? The explanation, it must be said, somewhat punctures the preliminary hype concerning Nunn's production. All That Fall is, in fact, a radio play. It was broadcast by the BBC back in 1957. Nor is it one of Beckett's greatest works, being a short "road play" that manages to be at once slightly rambling and episodically bitty.
Still, it is droll, treating gloominess with black humour and being tongue-in-cheek with its deliberately exaggerated sound effects. It's linguistically absorbing, too, blending mundane chitchat with the subtly poetic and archaic. Take, for instance, the small talk of decrepit old Mrs Rooney (Atkins), as she trudges along an Irish country lane, conversing with a string of locals. In her confab with aged Mr Tyler, who’s nearly knocked off his bicycle by a thunderous motor-van, she philosophizes, "It is suicide to be abroad. But what is it to be at home, Mr Tyler, what is it to be at home? A lingering dissolution."
Later she waits for her blind husband (Gambon) at the train station, he disembarks, and they start trundling home. A morbid twist at the close intimates that a taboo-breaking dark deed has been committed offstage, with perhaps a nod to Greek tragedy.
Nunn's staging is, in truth, the real disappointment. The ever-protective Beckett estate apparently insisted on a set resembling a recording studio. That might have been fascinating, had Nunn fully pursued the idea, with the sound effects being rustled up before your eyes by an onstage tech crew. But they’re pre-recorded, and the whole production seems like a halfway house. In a visually dull, black chamber with old microphones hanging overhead, the cast is in full costume but reading from scripts, only vaguely positioning themselves under the mikes.
Gambon's dark-suited Mr Rooney is unsettling, slightly stooped and tapping with his walking cane, but still towering over Atkins and suddenly barking with feral rage. Atkins handles the text with consummate skill. However, though bowed and shuffling in her dowdy cardigan and brown felt hat, she looks rather more prim and trim than the dialogue indicates, and Nunn needs to fine-tune the more farcical moments of physical comedy. So, All That Fall hasn’t been as fully or brilliantly fleshed out, but the BBC Radio should definitely record this fine ensemble for posterity.


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