The stage at Hampstead Theatre is part set, backstage equipment and lighting rigs. Zubin Varla's Felice is trying to prep the area for a performance, after which he practices a few lines from a play he's writing, delivering them to a camera on the stage, the image projected onto the back wall.
It is one of the ways high tech equipment is used in The Two Character Play - one of the later works by Tennessee Williams. It plants it firmly in two different times and is perhaps a cheeky nod to digital theatre during lockdown.
Felice is an actor as well as a writer, but the company he is touring with has upped and left him and his actor sister Claire (Kate O'Flynn). The note they leave declares that the two are insane.
Even their manager has abandoned them.
Claire arrives all skittish and wants to cancel the evening's performance but Felice insists they do The Two Character Play instead. Claire agrees, but only if she can make cuts as they go, something she will signal by playing a C-sharp on the piano.
They warn each other they might dry and have to improvise, but 'the show must go on'.
And so, the play within the play begins. Claire frustrates Felice with her random cuts, and Felice has to run 'off-stage' to change cassette tapes with the music.
They whisper to each other when things go wrong, part encouragement, part observation, distinguishing between the two sets of performances with a change of accent.
In the play within the play, they are also siblings, living their childhood home, despite having witnessed their parents traumatic deaths there. They get food delivered, and Claire won't leave the house.
The two are mostly at odds with each other and as eccentric in the play as they are out of it. All oddity falls away, and they are in sync when they fall into a dance routine or song—something which, in the context, is ironically an oddity.
And that is a problem I have with the play. While it has some funny moments, and there is an interesting mix of high tech and low tech devices in the production, it is rather peculiar at times.
Reading the programme on the tube on the way home, there is an article about Tennessee Williams' sister who had mental health issues and was eventually put into an institution.
More of the play makes sense knowing that. The routine, the avoidance, the isolation and the glimpses you get of the sort of behaviour that probably drove the rest of the company away.
At times it was like watching a cross between Waiting For Godot and Noises Off although it doesn't feel quite as profound as the first or as funny as the second.
There was one of those awkward moments when the lights dimmed towards the end, and some of the audience started applauding, thinking it had finished. In fact, there were another 10 minutes or so, which kind of sums it up. The final third sees the play reach peak oddness - or insanity if you prefer and it left me a little bewildered.
I have mixed feelings about The Two Character Play. It was, at times, interesting and enjoyable and, at others, frustrating and perplexing. I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️.
The Two Character Play is at Hampstead Theatre until 28 August and is 2 hours and 10 minutes with an interval. Visit the theatre's website for more details and tickets.