Kiss Me- Bristol Old Vic Directors Cuts at Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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A woman lies on a single bed, reading; the lights fade; the sound of the trenches pound through the speakers; and the women slowly arches her back, sensuous and aching. It’s a bravura start to Richard Bean’s two-hander play Kiss Me, cleverly summing up the pieces main themes of loss and desire in an aural/visual shorthand. It rather sums up the strengths of Katharine Farmer’s production, whip smart and guided by a steady hand allowing its hold gradually tightens. It’s a small piece of work in many ways; keeping its focus tight on its two protagonists and its ideas confined to its small bedsit; but is given a supremely sure staging. If a director’s main job is to ensure the work on the page gets the best possible realisation on a stage than you couldn’t ask for better than Farmer provides.

The women who we see arched on the bed is ‘Stephanie’, a First World War widow nervously awaiting her first encounter with ‘Dennis’ a man who has come to her small room for a pre-arranged assignation. Stephanie, alone and already assigned to the shelf in her mid-twenties is ready for a child. Dennis is doing his bit to repopulate a nation decimated at the trenches of Ypres and the Somme. How many children has he created Stephanie queries early on? ‘202 through 711 meetings’ is the answer. These are women whose lives stopped the moment their own men fell on the Western Front. This man potentially their only chance of having a family that war has denied them.

Bean started off as a miniaturist before the mainstream delights of One Man Two Guvnors sent him stratospheric, and before his work as a playwright, he did the rounds on the comedy circuit. His past is at the forefront of this play. His humour keeps the play, whose premise sounds leavening, spritely and sprung. ‘Where’s the weirdest place you’ve had sex?’ ‘Stoke Newington’. It’s the little one liners, the moments of humour between the pair that keeps it motoring. Both have secrets, aliases, things locked up inside. Stephanie never even had time to discover if she loved her husband, two innocents with a two-week honeymoon in dank, damp Wales, a little unsatisfactory ‘wham bam thank you mam’ and then a lifetime of being a widow. Dennis, a quintessential English gent in bowler and cut-glass vowels, is ashamed that he never went to the Front, never fought, his family’s business keeping him wealthy and safe.

These two souls, both broken and lost, form an attachment, the business arrangement soon making way, the mechanical dissection of what must occur ‘no kissing’, soon makes way for passionate clinches and talks of the future. Bean keeps one final rug pull behind though, one that hits hard when it arrives. Farmer layers it up, keeping the action brisk (it runs at a very commendable 60 minutes) and allowing the two to escape their reserve and find something more. Its last moments, as backs stiffen and upper lips applied are painfully realised.

Stephanie Booth and George Readshaw chart the rise and fall of this relationship beautifully. Booth tumbles out words as if to stop and contemplate will kill her, a woman with plenty to say and no one to say it to. War has turned her modern, hardened and open in her desires. She drives a truck. She makes jokes about fucking. The demure Catholic schoolgirl pre-war has evolved into the kind of women we see today. Booth allows us to see both sides of this women, the blowsy exterior hiding the women lost beneath. Readshaw’s Dennis meanwhile uses class as his disguise. His accent and manners suggest breeding but his eyes give nothing away. His motives are never fully clear, is he genuinely in love with this woman or is it all an extended seduction technique. What motivates a man to bed 700 women, patriotism or sex addiction. Bean never answers. It should cause debate in the bar after.

The works restraint is quintessentially British, repressed emotions bubbling to the surface but never being released. Farmer and her cast help release its cumulative power. It ends up bruising. A fascinating play with Britain on a cusp of change is pitched beautifully. Recommended.

Kiss Me plays at Wardrobe Theatre until 19 May

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Toast – Theatre Royal, Bath **

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It’s always interesting seeing first time work by playwrights who later go on to make a big splash. Long before Richard Bean became the first playwright to win two Best Play awards at the Evening Standard awards, Toast played at the Royal Court upstairs theatre in 1999.

Set in a Hull bread making factory (Bean has direct experience having worked in one for a year before going to university) it’s a play that in this Snapdragon production; admittedly dragged from a studio to a proscenium arch which does it no favours; falls a little flat, the jokes aren’t funny enough, the acting sketched rather than finely defined. It is hard on a first viewing to know whether it’s the play or the production that doesn’t quite ring true. Whichever way you look at it there is a muted feel around Bath Theatre Royal.

Bean’s play harks back to the work plays of David Storey and Arnold Wesker, setting the action on a Sunday night shift at the factory in 1975 as the workers grumble, joke and gossip their way through the night. It’s an old-fashioned piece of writing in many ways, the first act introducing us to the characters and the relationships between the men and in the second ramping up the plot as the machine breaks down and the men are forced into a dangerous task to get it up and running again. Towards the end of the first

Towards the end of the first act, it begins to appear as the play is going down a different road of the supernatural and apocalyptic but this interesting juncture is then ceremoniously dropped and it meanders on as a result.

Director Eleanor Rhode’s production appears to be missing a beat, the timing a little off, the actors not jumping on their cues quickly enough. Bean does create well-rounded characters and by the end, you feel as though you have done a shift with them, it is rare to see a set of working class men on the stage, the kind of guys you see in your local.

A muted evening is brightened considerably by Matthew Kelly who gives yet another top notch performance to add to his increasingly glittering theatrical CV. His Walter ‘Nellie’ Nelson is a battered warhorse of the factory, battered and bruised after 40 years of service and terrified of losing his livelihood as the factory plans to move to Bradford.

Over recent years, Kelly’s held his own alongside actors of the ilk of Ian McKellen and Henry Goodman. Here it feels like his show, he dominates when he is on and the energy noticeably saps when he is gone. There are interesting turns by Simon Greenall and John Wark as the joker in the pack and a mature student with multiple layers but it’s Kelly’s show. He’s almost worth the ticket price alone but, ultimately, it’s one for Bean devotees only.

Runs until 12 March 2016 | Image: Oliver King