mon 23/09/2019

All That Fall, Jermyn Street Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

All That Fall, Jermyn Street Theatre

All That Fall, Jermyn Street Theatre

Eileen Atkins dazzles in her Beckett debut: a powerhouse London stage premiere of his 1957 radio play

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in 'All That Fall' at the Jermyn Street TheatrePolly Hancock

Samuel Beckett recalled sinking into a "whirl of depression" while writing All That Fall. Audiences at this production - those, that is, who have managed to score a ticket for this short, sold-out run - are unlikely to emerge into Jermyn Street in a similarly gloomy frame of mind.

Apart from the exceptional nature of the evening - a rarely seen piece and a superlative cast in an intimate, up-close, 70-seater setting - All That Fall is revealed here as a bawdy, bucolic comedy, and a perversely life-affirming one full of marvellous one-liners, even if they are, of course, also spiked with grim intimations of mortality.

It is a strikingly athletic play: the characters are caught up in a constant struggle

In the play Maddy Rooney, a 70-something woman in ill-health, trudges along muddy country backroads to the station to meet her blind husband from the station. She meets and spars, flirtatiously and acerbically, with various local characters along the way. The return journey finds the weather and the mood darkening and hints at a tragic, possibly murderous event earlier that day.

Written for BBC radio in 1957, All That Fall has - by Beckett's standards - an epic cast of nine characters and a rural, distinctively Irish setting. It makes liberal use of sound effects, from the exaggerated medley of animal noises that ushers in the proceeding to squelching rain, the taunts of children's voices and not one but two importantly puffing steam trains.

However Beckett vigorously opposed the idea of adapting all this for the stage, stating that "[e]ven the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings ... will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing's coming out of the dark".

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in Samuel Beckett's All That Fall at the Jermyn Street TheatreHe quashed attempts by such eminences as Laurence Olivier and Ingmar Bergman to adapt All That Fall for the theatre, and his estate continues to insist on either pure radio productions or staged readings with minimal action. This new version claims to be the first for the London stage (the Irish company Pan Pan mounted a free adaptation in Dublin last year).

Trevor Nunn's production at the Jermyn Street Theatre is, to my mind, a not terribly satisfactory compromise which observes the letter of the strictures whilst stretching them to breaking point. A decorative phalanx of radio mikes, utterly redundant and unused in this pocket-hanky space, dangles from the ceiling. The cast members are costumed and all brandish scripts, even those actors with just a handful of lines.

And they do a good deal more than sedately perambulate from chair to chair. Beckett described his original concept for All That Fall as "a nice gruesome idea full of cartwheels and dragging of feet and puffing and panting". The cartwheels are admittedly agricultural rather than gymnastic. But it is a strikingly athletic play: the characters are caught up in a constant struggle, to walk or cycle or drive through the mud, to heave themselves laboriously in or out of cars and up or down steps, and above all to stave off that inevitable last fall, into a ditch, from a train, from the grace of God, and inevitably, into their own open graves.

This cast in this production try to map out this harsh physical battle, clutching their scripts all the while in hand. Apart from being a distraction, the sheafs of paper are a positive impediment. Still, what a cast. After Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape and Eh Joe, Michael Gambon has nothing left to prove in terms of his Beckettian credentials; apoplectic pink and shiny in an ill-fitting suit, he arrives late-ish in the scenario but is thereafter an explosion of wrath barely contained by the theatre's studio space.

The play very properly belongs to Eileen Atkins, who says she has not previously played Beckett, but makes of Maddy a superlative tragi-comic creation: mournful, ungainly, coquettish and, in fact, downright randy, a bit of a martyr ("I'm left-handed on top of everything else!"), fighting constantly to make her voice heard, but wryly philosophical with it and a worthy antecedent to the suffering, indomitable female protagonists of Beckett's later work. She takes possession of the stage, often with a mere raised eyebrow or a flickering sidelong glance at the audience - when, for example, the excitable Miss Fitt (Catherine Cusack) steals the limelight from Maddy just a shade too long.

It's another radio "cheat" (and Atkins is really much too trim and nimble for the character, even in a frumpy frock and hat), but one that you wouldn't wish to dispense with for all the world. I look forward to her Winnie in Happy Days and, should the Beckett estate ever relent, a fully visualised version of this fascinating play.

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