Simon Ward reviews Lunch & The Bow of Ulysses at Trafalgar Studios
Two Steven Berkoff plays written 20 years apart telling the story of a couple’s first encounter and then the bitter reminiscences of their subsequent life together – Lunch (1983) and The Bow of Ulysses (2002). Played here as a continuous piece, it might have worked better as two standalone plays with an interval. There wasn’t the development of themes and characters you would expect in a longer play, nor the energy of a single 90-minute work.
Lunch, taken on its own, has a weird and disturbing coupling at its heart, but is followed by an awkward and rather charming disentangling. It could be read as an endearing and not wholly destructive meeting of two lost souls. Perhaps to counter that reading, our curmudgeonly author gives us The Bow of Ulysses, which not only destroys any illusions about Lunch but further excoriates the intervening 20 years as well, a couple of barely-mentioned kids notwithstanding.
The power games between the two characters in both pieces is characteristically well done, as each takes the upper hand at various points but there is crucially never any real common ground.
There are problems, however. The sexual politics, especially of Lunch, are unpleasant – there are overtones of coercion in the sex and abhorrently aggressive language.
Berkoff has a Woody Allen-like tendency to write parts for himself, with the danger that other actors will appear as mere avatars – again this is particularly evident in Lunch, which has more of his trademark physicality and expressionist acting. I’m afraid that Shaun Dooley could not quite carry this off, though there was no doubting his commitment.
Nigel Harman’s direction commits the crime of playing too much to the middle of the auditorium – a perennial complaint, but especially unfortunate in such a small venue. Sitting on the side meant missing too much too often.
The set worked well (design by Lee Newby) – the middle of a pier an appropriate metaphor for a couple who can commit to neither land, sea nor each other. The bench doubling up as a Punch & Judy stall was a welcome break from the talking heads.
Acting honours go to Emily Bruni who took us on journey from a somewhat passive inhabitant of fantasy world to a strong, if disillusioned, woman. Shaun Dooley did come into his own in The Bow of Ulysses when his not-being-Steven-Berkoff was less of an issue.
A curiosity then rather than a must-see, but the richness and daring of Berkoff’s language are worth catching if you haven’t before.
Lunch & The Bow of Ulysses plays at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 5th November 2016