Krapp's Last Tape, Duchess Theatre, London

4.00

It's a year since Michael Gambon was obliged to abandon rehearsals for Alan Bennett's Habit of Art because of a health scare. What a pleasure, therefore, to be able to welcome the fully restored actor back to the London stage now in Michael Colgan's powerful production of Krapp's Last Tape, which has transferred from Dublin's Gate Theatre. One wonders whether there's an element of witty defiance in Gambon's decision to give us a portrayal of the great Beckett protagonist that so pointedly highlights the fact that he's not long for this world. There's certainly no danger of any further tapes from the chronically dilapidated, terminally enfeebled figure he cuts here.

His Krapp is discovered slumped face down on his table. It's only by manually dragging it upright that he can lift the great head with its wild sprays of sparse white hair. Because of all the dazed, groping bewilderment, the introductory slapstick with the bananas perhaps consumes an undue slice of the 50 minutes' duration, though one would be loath to lose Gambon's mischievous embellishments such as the little now-you-see-me-now-you-don't routine, performed as though to twit the Almighty, at the boundary between his central lair of light and the surrounding blackness. There's a balletic delicacy and grace in this hefty actor whose long, tapering fingers seem to be poised like nervously expectant birds ready to swoop down on the controls of the machine whenever the impatient, Krapp wishes to stop, rewind or fast-forward the tape of his 39-year-old self.

The last time he performed Beckett in the West End as the title character in Eh Joe, Gambon delivered a silent tour de force, reacting in troubled, microscopic detail (and in giant close-up) to the accusing voice of a former lover. That haggard, haunted bloodhound-face speaks volumes here too with every blink and flinch. This time, though, he provides his own voice from the past. The recorded Krapp on the cusp of middle age strikes a defensively self-important note as befits a would-be elevated writer who thinks that by renouncing love, he can clear the decks for a masterpiece. Gambon eloquently differentiates this from the growly downmarket Dublin accent he gives to the wretched, 69-year-old product of that delusion.

Krapp's ritual of recording a birthday retrospect (a case of many diminishing returns) creates a bleak vista of bitter schadenfreude and Gambon conveys all the grim comedy of this as he chuckles sometimes with, sometimes at the condescension of the mid-lifer towards the taped resolves of a still younger self. By the end, you can hardly bear to look at the shrunken husk who seems to be staring into a fathomless abyss of desolation as the tape runs on and we hear the 39-nine-year-old Krapp take refuge in an excruciatingly inaccurate career-forecast: "Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now." A piercing performance.

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