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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
ALL THAT FALL
at Arts Theatre

ON THE AIR
By JOHN NATHAN

  Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins/ Ph: Polly Hancock

What could be more fitting than for Samuel Beckett's 1957 radio play to end up at the theatre where, two years previously, Waiting for Godot was first performed in London?

Beckett's estate placed conditions on allowing the work to be performed on stage. The production had to stay true to the playwright's vision. So director Trevor Nunn has his dream-team cast, which includes Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, perform the work with script in hand as if broadcasting the play from a radio studio. Clever Trevor still manages to impose some conventional theatricality onto the play, however. The cast inhabits not only character but costume. And so, as Atkins' ageing Mrs Rooney shuffles across the stage on the way to the station to meet her husband (Gambon), it is not only the studio that is evoked, its microphones hanging from the ceiling, but also the Irish village in which Beckett sets his play.

It is well known that Beckett is, among many other things, a master of intrigue. While his plays reveal more about humanity than seems possible, they remain endlessly mysterious works. Not so here. When All That Fall devastatingly answers the harmless question that is posed earlier in the play – why was Mr Rooney's train late? – Beckett reveals a masterly grip of the dramatic and emphatic climax. Yet on the way to that moment much of the play takes the shape of a pastoral satire, complete with the sound of farmyard animals. 

The narrative couldn't be simpler. As Beckett's heroine meets various fellow villagers on her way to the station – among them a man who sells dung – a portrait emerges of a sardonic woman with a formidable wit, and of a place whose populations feed on lyrical and gossipy discourse. 

Yet over the uninterrupted 75 minutes of this show – which was first seen at the Jermyn Street Theatre – Beckett's familiar introspection is never far way. It comes in the form of perfect lines that are as devastating as they are funny and which, though this is impossible to prove, could not have been written by anyone else. Could even O'Casey or Synge have written Mrs Rooney's description of her own long-dead daughter, who if she were still living would be “girding up her little loins for 'The Change' by now?"

Unearthing the lesser-known work of a great writer often only confirms why the work was lesser known. But All That Fall has all the characteristics of a play written at the height of its author's comedic powers. The road and the landscape bring to mind the music hall humour of Godot, as does Mr Rooney's Pozzo-like blind man's stick – presumably one of the props allowed by the Beckett Estate's conditions. Beckett explicitly answers the play's big question, causing Gambon's shambling, irascible Mr Rooney to cry out with the burden of the secret he has been carrying ever since he got off the train. It is doubtful that whatever radio programme followed Beckett's play in 1957 was listened to.

 


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