One For The Road...
- Comedy classic from Russell's brilliant pen
One For The Road at the Liverpool Playhouse is about as near to farce that Willy Russell has come.
The characters in this dinner party comedy are designed for laugh lines, and the situation’s often exaggerated as a result.
It is an exaggeration emphasized in Danny Hillier’s direction and the performances of the four principals, particularly Andrew Schofield’s manic Dennis, the man desperate to leave his empty lifestyle.
True, there is some underlying social comment about stale marriages, hypocrisy and the acquisitive society. No genuine comedy could exist without some truth and Russell does not fail us.
But the aim is laughter, and in this production that is where the strength lies.
Michael Starke’s Roger, the old friend with colour sup thinking and a basic personality (complete with burps) is a wonderful comic realisation, and so is Angels Walsh’s stiff-voiced wife with a belief in her own taste.
Annette Ekblom with the less emphatic role as Dennis’s wife, nevertheless never forgets that reaction is often as funny as action.
But the joy of the production has to be Andrew Schofield’s Dennis, a soft, dangerous, witty, crude, unpleasant, loveable, intelligent amalgam of so many personalities that yet somehow merge into one superb portrayal. This was a true gem of clever comic acting.
Willy Russell’s comedy may have been seen at the Playhouse before. But this has to be a rather special production, one that captures the anarchic mood of Liverpool itself.
PHILIP KEY - 1986
Dennis The Menace....
Putting a vivid light on dull suburbia somewhere up north Willy Russell manages to be hilarious and unusually sympathetic at the same time.
I cannot remember another play of recent years which has made me laugh so much and at the same time left me so much involved in the feelings of the leading character.
Dennis is a prankster, a mimic and an occasional poet and his whole wisecracking performance is an effort to evade the death that can overtake a life which has every comfort except that of individuality and fulfillment.
In imagination he is the great escapist form the world of the thousand neat and anonymous bungalows, the supermarkets and the plastic containers sold at parties. Whether he can escape bodily, a desire more widespread among others that he realises, is the business of the play.
Alun Armstrong gives a beautiful performance of the apparently eternal boy who has married, produced a child and joined the blissful bungalow crowd. He envies the freedom of childhood and on the eve of his thirtieth birthday feels lost and old.
Mr. Armstrong is hugely funny, but I never doubt the angry frustrations beneath the jokes. Like the other three characters, also splendidly acted under the direction of Mike Ockrent, he is a very real human being.
The most colourful of them, apart from him, is a know-all liberated neighbour who has abstracted the last ounce of sustenance from the Sunday supplements and the advice columns and seems armoured for every occasion. But the armour is only skin deep. Prunella Scales’ performance is as superbly gauged as that other bossy wife of hers in “Fawlty Towers.”
Although subject to less development, the other two characters, a husband played by Philip Jackson and a wife played by Elizabeth Estensen, have a good deal going for them and are never less that interesting to watch.
John Gunter’s set, which shows a particular home but suggests a whole world, is a major asset. If the play is unsuitable for children, as the advertisement says, it is because there is some swearing.
Since it is done with artistry and a great sense of fun, I see no cause for objection.
Deservedly last night, “Dennis The Menace,” which is on its way to the West End, found a very responsive audience.
Sure Fire Comedy
Some comedy is like war – the more often it goes over the top the greater its chance of success.
One For The Road attacks with all the flags flying and guns firing, if some of the bullets miss it hardly matters, most of them hit and some even draw blood.
The ground is familiar, it has seen more battles than Belgium.
The middle classes are at play, a quartet of youngish people who seem to devote their lives to getting on, getting up and getting in. But one of them wants to get up and get out.
Andrew Schofield seems to have cornered the market in manic whimsy. Here he plays Dennis who is 30 going on 18 … part of the generation who grew up believing you should never trust anybody over 30.
His 30th birthday turns into a symbolic point of no return. Will he pack his rucksack and hit the road or will he give in and settle down.
In the hands of many authors it would be easy not to care, part of Willy Russell’s skill is that he forces you to care even if you do not always believe.
His other major talent is making you laugh. He builds a joke up and then just when you think he has exhausted it, he adds one killingly funny line.
This comic escalation often takes the situation beyond documentary truth but still, underneath this, there is an insight into reality that can take the breath away.
Andrew Schofield’s energetic and excellent central performance is, on the whole, ably supported.
Annette Ekblom, is tremendous as Pauline his wife; she supports both the character and the performance without ever playing second fiddle.
Danny Hillier’s production and Andy Greenfield’s design combine to add an air of reality to the proceedings. The windows seem to have real glass, the telephone receiver makes noises and the meal smells authentic.
ALAN CLARKE - 1986
One For The Road
Something is up of the Phase Two bungalow estate. A dozen garden gnomes have had their heads severed, a row of cabbages have been painted to look like breasts and someone’s Venus de Milo has had arms stuck on it. There is, as one character remarks in this hilarious new comedy by Willy Russell, “something ominously creative about this wave of vandalism.
It is the eve of Dennis’s thirtieth birthday, a watershed to be celebrated by dinner with his friends, Roger and Jane, who also live on the estate. The parents never arrive, despite a series of phone calls to determine the Bungalow’s location in Mahler Crescent (off Beethoven Close and hard by the local pub, the Crotchet and Quaver). Dennis’s wife, Pauline, interrupts his reflective concentration on a Carly Simon record of suburban despair with a long whine about their child’s bad language.
Dennis is at breaking point. Bob Dylan is the one who spoke for him, not John Denver. Roger and Jane’s present is a record case containing a Denver double album. In the second act, Denver, along with the Carpenters and Neil Diamond, is sent spinning across Phase Two in a microgroove Frisbee storm. Mr. Russell is not just mocking a hollow lifestyle – although the mockery is total and brilliantly sustained in John Gunter’s design, with its dressing of ferns, hunting horns, jingling Rossini doorbell and receding skyline of identical Phase Two gables – but also sounding a real lament for buried aspirations. Dennis still scribbles poetry, but it is locked up in the bureau along with table mats. Roger’s musical career is now confined to playing “Parkinson” at home with the kids quizzing him on fantasy stardom.
Jane and Roger both diagnose Dennis’s problem as sexual at root; she descends on him like a moral voyeur with “Right is it premature ejaculation?,“ while Roger spots symptoms of the “hump-wish” as a prelude to revealing that Phase Two, under the cloak of a community spirit evidenced in committees and rambling societies, in an adulterous rabbit warren. But when Dennis decides to find freedom on the M6, the others are keen to follow. Operating the repressive tolerance principle, the overlook the supply of aerosol cans stashed in the bureau. But Dennis returns and settles on the sofa with an adulterous leer. The bolt has been shot along with the wild beast inside.
Mike Ockrent’s production is a joyous affair, tight and well placed, even when it does not quite manage to conceal a few rough bumps of ply development towards the end. The four performances are superb, especially that of Alun Armstrong as Dennis. He plays the part with both lightness and sincerity. It is funny and sad that he is tunneling away under Marley tiles in the kitchen.. Elizabeth Estensen as Pauline has the least fully-rounded character to play, but she performs with rare delicacy of touch and a sort of straggling anorexic charm. Rachel Davies and Philip Jackson complete a talented quartet.
The play has been queueing up for a West End theatre for some while now and surely it is about time somebody found a London venue. The Comedy would be perfect. This is not a Nottingham production but, somewhat mysteriously, the Playhouse director, Geoffrey Reeves, has been credited with the lighting. Ah Well, if he can’t find them, I suppose the least he can do is light them.