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BWW Review: ENDGAME/ROUGH FOR THEATRE II, Old VicHot on the heels of Trevor Nunn's recent production at Jermyn Street Theatre, Samuel Beckett's plays continue to grace London in all their bleak splendour. Starring Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Jones's captivating production at the Old Vic brings together Endgame and Rough for Theatre II in a diptych about the perils and pleasures of retrospection.

BWW Review: ENDGAME/ROUGH FOR THEATRE II, Old VicThe evening's curtain-raiser is Rough for Theatre II, a rarely staged work from the late 1950s, in which two men are tasked with weighing up the life of someone on the verge of suicide and deciding whether he should do it or not. In trying to pass judgment on Croker's life, Bertrand (Daniel Radcliffe) and Morvan (Alan Cumming) read out and discuss a bunch of testimonies provided by people who have known him.

The "service" that these two professionals offer is for free, and their aim is to "sum up and clear out" as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, standing silent and motionless in front of a window, Croker (Jackson Milner) remains painfully visible - but how much of his life can really be gleaned and appraised with this odd, otherworldly exercise?

Richard Jones amps up the comical energy of this darkly pithy play at the expense of some of its verbal intricacies. Many of the pauses prescribed by Beckett's script are illegible in performance, with the actors tending to rush through moments that would be better served by a more patient pace. Still, Cumming and Radcliffe are deft in their portrayal of these two highly dissimilar characters: while Cumming's Morvan flaunts his dramatic flair with increasing vigour, Radcliffe's Bertrand betrays a youthful discipline and hints of compassion.

On Stewart Laing's spare set, which consists of two small tables and chairs, these two quirky personas casually ponder what makes a life worth living, even as their own liveliness turns out to be dubious. "Ah Morvan," exclaims Bertrand at some point, "you'd be the death of me if I were sufficiently alive!".

The same sentiment could have been voiced by the characters in Endgame. This 1957 play comprises the meatier and more accomplished portion of the double bill. Stuck in a nearly empty, bland interior, the blind and decrepit Hamm and his servant Clov enact self-flagellating routines of storytelling and distraction. With death and destruction presumed to lurk outside the walls, the co-dependent couple passes the time with ruthless banter, while tolerating the company of Hamm's elderly parents, who live in - and occasionally emerge from - nearby waste bins.

Jones's spirited and suave take on this demanding piece is particularly attuned to its persistent concern with the act of playing - of performing for oneself and others. It's a production carefully punctuated by its internal references to the theatre, and one that knows its way around the play's deep-running caverns.

Excellent performances by all four of the actors are integral to this result. Alan Cumming portrays a Hamm whose despair and boredom are perfectly matched with his manipulative histrionics. Mixing the demonic and the flippant, Cumming revels in Hamm's corrosive need to self-dramatise.

Daniel Radcliffe delivers a tightly controlled, charming performance as the limping Clov. Sliding down a ladder or twirling Hamm's armchair, he cuts a pitiably exasperated but deeply affable figure. The chemistry between the two is marvellous.

As Nagg and Nell, Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks prove worthy companions, supporting the central duo with their beguilingly slow-burning reflections on a shared but elusive past.

The muted colours in Stewart Laing's set and costumes help build the suffocating atmosphere within which these burned-out lives sizzle. Adam Silverman's dim lighting further entraps the action, though its bifurcation on the upstage wall remains somewhat puzzling.

These two off-kilter plays share a concern with how, or whether, daily minutiae - questions and answers, desires and hostilities, inanities and profundities - mount up to a life. Their provocations may not be easy to digest, but Jones's production makes sure that they linger in the mind beautifully.

Endgame/Rough for Theatre II at the Old Vic until 28 March

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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From This Author Mert Dilek