Lunch & The Bow of Ulysses, Trafalgar Studios 2, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Written and set 20 years apart, Steven Berkoff’s one-act plays Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses feature the same couple. Presented here as a contiguous story, with both 45-minute plays performed without an interval between, there is the chance to see both the changing facets of a relationship and the developing of Berkoff’s writing style.

Lunch is set over a single lunch hour, as an ebullient salesman (Shaun Dooley) spies an attractive young woman (Emily Bruni) sitting on a bench and attempts – and, at first at least, spectacularly fails – to engage her in conversation. Lee Newby’s design, with its faded decking that projects under the audience seats, is evocative of the slice of a faded pier, neither in one time nor another.

Over the course of this lunch hour, the couple dance around each other – usually verbally, occasionally literally – as they explore their mutual attraction as it mutates between lust, disgust, flirtation, regret and back. Dooley’s goofy physicality is counterbalanced nicely by Bruni’s comparative stillness. And while both actors’ portrayals lend themselves nicely to the physical movements – from Bruni escaping Dooley’s lustful advances to the point where both succumb – it is in Berkoff’s dialogue that Lunch really lets rip, taking both characters and the audience with it.

Writing in a lyrical, poetic style that eschews realism in favour of an impressionistic version of truth, Berkoff mixes flights of verbal fancy with the mundane, peppered with plenty of Pinteresque pauses which the two characters have no trouble filling. And yet, if Lunch were viewed on its own, it might feel a little slight, the playwright’s mission of expressing a full relationship played out in real time over 45 minutes being one more of an artistic challenge than something of weight.

Thank goodness, then, for The Bow of Ulysses, which resumes the story 20 years later. Director Nigel Harman chooses to move directly on to this piece without an interval, the only pause being an emotional beat as Dooley and Bruni cover their drab 1970s garb with great raincoats. The rapid transition does throw some of the second piece’s retconning of the first’s events into sharp relief – as the woman’s excuse for not continuing a relationship with the man in the first play is exposed as a fiction mere seconds later.

Despite the impressions at the end of Lunch, the couple ended up together, and after twenty years are living with the consequences of that. The Bow of Ulysses is an altogether different piece to its predecessor, replacing the freneticism and pace of the couple’s romantic sparring with a succession of monologues about love, disappointment, achievement and everything in between that the pair have stored up over the intervening years.

There is an overwhelming sense of bitterness and disappointment hanging over proceedings, as Dooley’s character continues to battle with the boiling rage inside as Bruni’s is able to finally express the brutality of her own feelings.

The long soliloquies tend to make this second half feel more static, and Harman’s direction can do little to remedy this. It’s easy for the attention to wander from the visuals, concentrating instead on Berkoff’s verbal imagery and metre, which both actors carry off. It is here where the Trafalgar Studios 2’s cramped space, which is at odds with the expanse of seaside described in Lunch, adds weight to the crushing sense of claustrophobia of a relationship that should maybe have ended at that first meeting 20 years previous.

Whether either piece would be as impressive without the other is perhaps a moot point at this stage. Together, though, Harman and his actors have crafted an impressive revival that allows Berkoff’s unique style to shine.

Continues until November 5.