Reviews: Theatre: Is this seat taken?

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Ionesco's 'The Chairs'

Theatre de Complicite, Royal Court

Precisely 40 years after its English premiere at the Royal Court, Ionesco's The Chairs returns to this theatre in a splendid production by Simon McBurney that should leave no seat in the house unfilled. On stage, of course, it's a different matter. The Chairs is the Theatre of the Absurd's bleakly farcical answer to Harvey, the old American play about a man who goes round in the company of an invisible/ imaginary six-foot white rabbit. When the lights went up at the interval of a recent West End revival of Harvey, I turned to the empty seat next to me and suggested a drink in the bar. To make the same joke about The Chairs, you would have to have the entire stalls to yourself.

A pair of old troupers still at the peak of their powers, Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers are Ionesco's cracked elderly couple. Stuck in a water- girt tower (where he is janitor) and in a folie a deux, they reminisce and eventually crowd the stage with invisible guests who are, so to speak, conspicuous by their absence, thanks to the skill with which McEwan and Briers mime the minutiae of hectic hosting and panicked hob-nobbing.

A thin, bandy-legged, lumpy-stockinged hag with a crazedly serene and gracious smile, McEwan gives a performance of stunning vocal and physical control. Via the bright, feathery swoops of her voice, she lets you hear undercurrents of unease in the character's deluded, Mrs Micawberish doting on a husband who has never (in Martin Crimp's excellent translation) been anything more than "master of the mop and bucket". McEwan can steer a sigh all the way from potty pleasure to trailing doubt. As the "arrivals" develop a mad momentum, with buzzers, bells and "Avon lady" chimes mounting to a dazing cacophony and the multiple doors of the Quay Brothers' spooky set going into slapstick uproar, McEwan careers bandily in and out, dragging ever more chairs after her, like someone aiming for the gold, silver and bronze in a Crackpot Caretaker of the Century award.

Alternating between ramrod-backed bluff and "poor me" mummy's-boy huffiness, Briers movingly suggests a man who compensates for failure by believing himself to carry a message that must be passed on to mankind. The futility of having a message (and, self-reflexively, of writing The Chairs) is brought home when the old couple jump to their deaths, in the mistaken belief that the man's message will be communicated by the orator who has at last arrived. But he turns out to be a deaf mute and a costumed fraud who scribbles nonsense on one of the doors.

By contrast, McBurney's masterly production communicates all the play's tricky, tragi-farcical elements, adding a potent sense of metaphysical mystery. At the magical start, we have the illusion that we are being rowed circuitously towards the couple's shuttered window, as it sways splashingly towards us from the back of the darkened stage. But who or what is taking us there? And who is the Emperor, signified here by a pair of white gloves picked out by a prowling spotlight? These are enigmas, not muddles: for 90 unbroken minutes, The Chairs keeps you glued to your seat.

To 20 Dec, Royal Court Downstairs (Duke of York's), St Martin's La, London WC2 (0171-565 5000)