Pete Brooks forsakes his own Insomniac Productions outfit to collaborate with Ruth Ben-Tovim's Louder Than Words company on this... well, this typical Pete Brooks piece.
In placing an individual in the midst of an impersonal machine, The Counting Of Years is directly linked to Brooks' 1991 piece L'Ascensore (The Lift). Here the "machine" is an hotel, which is also – in some eldritch way – the twentieth century itself. Night porter Harry becomes fascinated with a female guest who kills herself, becomes convinced that she is still somewhere in the hotel, and crawls through a trapdoor in time to relive the events surrounding her death, and fail to prevent it, again and again. Meanwhile, the woman and her male companion obsessively tell each other stories which seem, by the act of telling, to create the entire century. In other words, this is a non-linear piece in which several metaphors jostle for space with implicit themes of individual actions and their influence on the broader canvas of the world.
The staging, design and performances are near faultless. Nick Sutton's shaven-headed Harry resembles a bewildered android, learning through the repeated experiences of his personal Groundhog Century. Gail Ghislaine-Sixsmith is distant and abstracted towards him, torrid and impassioned in her hyperspatial lair with her male counterpart – Miltos Yerolemou, who looks like Anthony Quinn and acts, in one of his many personae, like James Woods with a hangover. Alice Purcell's design of gantries and alcoves is versatile and evocatively unspecific, and Test Department/Band Of Holy Joy veteran Neil Starr has not so much created incidental music as a complete soundtrack, urgent and urging. Director Ben-Tovim keeps a firm hand on the various here-there-and-everywhere strands of action and inaction, propelling the audience past a handful of moments when we are unsure whether we are laughing with or at Brooks's script.
The Counting Of Years ravishes the eyes and ears, but in the end does no more than tickle the brain. It's an intellectual-theatrical Chinese box, which only opens if you press the right panels. However, it's also impossible to resist the Chinese-meal metaphor: an enjoyable experience, but half an hour later you're hungry again.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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