An elderly, infirm Irish woman, Mrs. Rooney, treks to the station to meet her husband from the train as a birthday surprise for him. The journey there and back is at once comedy, tragedy and odyssey. The teeny-tiny Jermyn Street Theatre have scored something of a coup in getting Trevor Nunn to direct Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall - a one-act radio play first broadcast in 1957 - with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon (no less), in the lead roles. Never meant for presentation in a theatre - “it is no more theatre than Endgame is radio and to act’ it is to kill it,” the proscriptive playwright averred - All That Fall has received occasional productions against Beckett’s wishes but surely none as illustrious as this.
Perhaps mindful of Beckett’s remarks, Nunn and his collaborators have opted to stage the work as a half radio play/half theatre production hybrid. Sounds predominate (footsteps, children’s voices, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden), the only set is a car door, mikes dangle from the ceiling, the actors hold their scripts at all times, but are appropriately costumed. (The effect is not unlike that of Martin Crimp’s production of Definitely the Bahamas at the Orange Tree back in March.)
Does this semi-staging “kill” the play, as Beckett insisted that it would? Very far from it. Rather, the result is as intense and memorable an hour and fifteen minutes as you’re likely to spend in a theatre this year. Composed between Godot and Endgame, reflecting the former and anticipating the latter in its concern with death and dependency, human striving and human suffering, All That Fall feels as rich and complex as either of those great works. Intimately attuned to the inimitable rhythms of the playwright’s glorious language, Atkins and Gambon are everything you would hope for, and a crack cast - Ian Conningham, Frank Grimes, Gerard Horan, Catherine Cusack, Ruairi Conaghan and James Hayes (the latter pair reunited from the Donmar’s recent Philapdelphia, Here I Come!) - are vivid in support. And how pleasing it is to see Nunn do such a lean, spare job of work here after the lumbering, cumbersome productions that seemed to be becoming his trademark.
What does this version give us that a radio version wouldn’t? Well, the sublime visual vaudeville of Mrs. Rooney being lifted into and out of a car, for one. Also, the sight of the great Gambon hands touching Atkins’s hair. And Atkins herself - by turns quizzical and anguished - distilling the play’s tragicomic vision into a look, a gesture. In short: worth begging, borrowing or stealing a ticket for.
Running until November 3rd.