Dukes Theatre Lancaster
The multiple male roles of Jim Cartwright's classic pub comedy are a gift for any actor, but for Graham Fellows - best known as his bluff alter ego John Shuttleworth - it's the equivalent of visiting all 500 of his beloved Bus Stops of Great Britain at once. Fellows has found himself in some peculiar places: at the top of the charts as Jilted John, traversing the bus network as Shuttleworth and, most recently, touring as Belle and Sebastian's support act in his latest guise, rock musicologist Brian Appleton. Now he's back in his native north west, playing to a packed house that can't quite believe a local hero of such magnitude should have landed on their doorstep.
Cartwright's two-hander has become a staple for repertory companies on restricted budgets since its first appearance in 1989, and the visceral impact of its pugnacious poetry has softened through repetition. But the play's actor-recycling concept could have been devised with Fellows in mind. He is a master of multiple characterisation and practically an entire repertory ensemble on two legs.
Inevitably, some Shuttleworth mannerisms infiltrate the performance; his nose scrunched and teeth bared like a quizzical rabbit; brows knitting so furiously that they could have a couple of sweaters ready by the end of the evening. Then there's the voice, a strained wheeze that seems wrenched from his body against its better judgment. Fellows's Mancunian hum is one of the world's least melodious accents, but tuned to Cartwright's muscular vernacular, it positively sings.
The immediate difficulty is finding someone who can match him, but Carol Holt rises to the challenge magnificently. She is superb in an ever-changing round of headscarves as the pub's beaten but unbowed female clientele. The crowning moment of Ian Hastings's perceptive production occurs when both are on stage as a casual wifebeater and his catatonic spouse. In this piece of imperceptible psychological torture, played out unobserved in a corner of the snug, Cartwright opens up a vein of quietly seething brutality. You'll never look at your local in quite the same way again. Alfred Hickling.
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