Belying the excessive modesty of its title, Ronald Harwood’s play The Handyman deals in Big Themes: war crimes, guilt, retribution, the nature of evil, the unknowability of others. You won’t be able to miss these themes because the characters keep stopping to announce them. A tendency towards obvious speechifying gives Harwood’s play an artificial air, at times. But Joe Harmston’s crisp and uncluttered production, produced by Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and now touring, proves mostly gripping nonetheless.
The play – which was first staged at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre in 1996 – opens in the quintessentially English (cue birdsong and church bells) garden of an affluent couple, Julian and Cressida Field (Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe): she’s working towards a degree in Gender Studies; he’s “in money.” The pair employ an odd-job man, Roman Kozachenko, known as Romka (Timothy West), a Ukrainian who’s taken care of the family for years, since being befriended by Cressida’s father in a P.O.W camp in Rimini. One day, however, the Fields receive a visit from Scotland Yard who announce that they have evidence connecting Romka to the massacre of over 800 Jews in the Ukraine in 1941. Romka protests his innocence, insisting that he was only a cook in the army and that this is a case of mistaken identity, but as evidence against him begins to mount up, the Fields begin to question how well they know a man that they’ve loved and trusted for years. Or as Julian handily summarises: “How well does anyone ever really know anyone?”
Its premise not entirely dissimilar to that of Costa-Gavras’s 1989 film Music Box, in which Jessica Lange played a lawyer defending her Hungarian father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) against accusations of war crimes, The Handyman stays out of the courtroom. Rather, the piece moves between scenes set in the Fields’s garden – where the couple meet Romka’s lawyer Marian Stone (Carolyn Backhouse) – and others set in Scotland Yard, where Romka is questioned by two police officers (James Simmons and Anthony Houghton). The latter scenes prove to be the most memorable and effective in the piece, and not only because Harmston has managed to entice to two big-names to portray witnesses to Romka’s alleged crimes. Delivering their testimonies via video, Steven Berkoff and Vanessa Redgrave – playing an army comrade of Romka’s and a friend of his sister, respectively – give juicy life to the play’s sometimes rehearsed-sounding arguments, and their star power doesn’t throw the evening off balance. Redgrave, in particular, lifts the piece into another dimension as her character, now a nun in Jerusalem, recalls witnessing a massacre. Unfortunately, the tension generated in these scenes is somewhat spoiled by a plunge into soap operatics in the misjudged final scene – an episode not in the original production of the play and added, Harwood’s programme note informs us, at the suggestion of Christopher Fry.
As the complacent couple who find their comfortable world shaken, Lukis and Langrishe give solid though not outstanding performances. West is superb throughout, however, creating a portrait of a softly-spoken man who’s severed all links with his background to re-invent himself as a British citizen and now finds his past painfully resurfacing. The intelligence of West’s interpretation, and the strength of the interrogation scenes, make Harmston’s production a worthwhile and intermittently powerful experience.
At Richmond until 20th Oct. Further touring information here.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.