White Bear Theatre, London SE11
Opened 2 July, 1997

Canadian playwright Robert William Sherwood's work has attracted considerable praise on its two previous showings at the White Bear in Kennington. Drinking In Circles confirms that he is a writer worth attention.

The proceedings begin in a bar, where two men are chatting aimlessly about life in a manner reminiscent of the early scenes of David Mamet's Glengarry, Glen Ross. Sherwood's characters, although they behave like ordinary folk, possess a slightly exaggerated lexicon, expressing sentiments like "I misgive". Frank and Paul's hyperreal discussion develops to the point where the latter offers to sell his life insurance policy to the former in return for a percentage of its sum upfront and six months of extravagant life, after which Frank may kill him. Suddenly the Mametian atmosphere (albeit one in which the "mark" has seemingly made the running) becomes Faustian.

We then see Frank breaking up with Karen in the same bar, followed by Karen's challenges to Paul to define and demonstrate his love for her. Sherwood treats characterisation not as an organic whole, but shows us a series of facets of these people's personalities whereby cubist portraits of their characters are built up: Holly Chant's Karen, for instance, is grave and stressed with Frank, and alternately coy and coolly domineering with Paul, who in turn moves in Morgan Symes's performance from despair to assurance to bewilderment.

Director Michael Kingsbury does not try either to impose an overall perspective upon characters nor to unify their vocabulary and their delivery; the lines are delivered in natural voices, whilst the overwrought polish of the actual words denaturalises the exchanges. The exception to this approach is Paul Goodwin's Frank, who in the course of 70 minutes shifts from deliberate underplaying against Paul (whom he assures, "You can trust me like you trust your dawg") to an extravagant delight in his words, as he luxuriates sinisterly in his turns of phrase.

We only ever see exchanges in the blue-painted bar-room, as if the important events of life have been banished from it; indeed, frequent contrasts drawn by all three characters between "this bar" and life outside it indicate that the bar symbolises the paralysed quotidian everything important is elsewhere, and can only be discussed futilely within its walls. In the final scene, hitherto silent barmaid Yvonne delivers a muted coda to the solitary Karen.

Sherwood's writing and Kingsbury's direction negotiate skilfully between the human sentiments expressed by the characters and the distorted manner and setting in which they are expressed. It is akin to watching a naturalistic drama through a fish-eye lens, and it is a gratifying experience.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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