Following the success of The Lodger last year, the latest production at Pentameters Theatre is a double bill of two more plays by Paul Birtill, a man whose work has been described as "Bleedin' fabulous" by no less a legend than John Cooper Clarke. The plays are Death of a Hawker and The Good Samaritan, black comedies that plough Birtill's familiar terrain of dysfunctional people leading barely functional lives.
Death of a Hawker is first up, and begins with scenes from the marriage of Jane and her rugby-playing, wife-beating, husband Maurice, before the not-so-cosy domestic set-up is interrupted by the arrival of Peter, a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman who also happens to be Jane's ex-boyfriend. Megan Smith, Michael Halden and Damian Regan play their parts straight, making no attempt to re-enforce or exaggerate the caricatures they already are. While this dampens down some of the humour it makes for a compelling production as the situation unfolds and Maurice tries to get the better of the salesman who is trying to make his wife see Maurice for what he really is. The grimy reality of Maurice and Jane's world is well created in the setting and seemingly minor details, such as the combination of roast duck with chips and beans, as the perfect Sunday lunchtime treat. While you wait for an explosion that never quite happens, it is nonetheless a subtle, nuanced, script and production.
The Good Samaritan is a lighter piece, even though the subject matter is still dark as suicidal Arthur Darnley, played by Adam Lewis, moves from making regular calls to on-duty Samaritan Mike Russell (Alex Freeborn) to a level of contact that is both obsessive and stalker-like in its intensity. The humour comes from the mixture of desperation and ineptitude in Darnley's calls and suicide attempts, which seem to involve excessive chocolate and three Anadin after a regular meal. Lewis captures the essence of Darnley to perfection, coming across as a combination of John Shuttleworth, Ed Tudor Pole and Bernard Hill in Yozzer Hughes mode. Freeborn becomes more dishevelled and frayed around the edges as his attitude towards his constant caller moves from mild irritation to near hatred. While the situation is funny it is also believable, and any sympathy for Darnley is eaten away as it becomes clear that he is not really concerned about the effect his calls have on anyone else, the only thing that's important is that they help him, even if he does seem to have little intention of going through with his threat to take his own life.
Director Conrad Blakemore understands Birtill's work and presents it in an honest, unsympathetic, style that allows the script and characters to speak for themselves. The plays don't reach quite the same standard as The Lodger, mainly because, unlike that play, it is harder to empathise with the central characters, but they are still well-observed, well-written and well-performed slices of the darker side of life, that are worth a trip to Hampstead to see.