Beckett had a graphic culinary metaphor for it. His short play Krapp's Last Tape could be programmed, he suggested, as the "little heart of an artichoke served before the tripes with excrement of Hamm and Clov (even in Endgame)". Over the next few weeks, those who fancy a Beckett-binge and who are prepared to make a dash from the Barbican to the West End, can consume Krapp's Last Tape (performed twice nightly at the Pit by Edward Petherbridge) as a piquant appetiser for the stewed-stinking-boot-with- carrot of the acclaimed Peter Hall Waiting for Godot. Completely re-cast (Julian Glover and Alan Dobie have taken over as the tramps condemned to killing, or rather failing to kill, time), this latter has just reopened at the Piccadilly Theatre.
As the RSC staging reaffirms, Krapp is more than capable of standing on its own. Looking like a thin, peaky wraith with an incongruous red clown-nose of a confirmed tippler, Petherbridge's Krapp has the measure of the play's hapless, (literally) banana-skin slapstick, and its defensive, aching regret, as he brings to dwindling life this anal-retentive old man poring over, disgustedly dismissing, and then being drawn ineluctably back to, the recorded voice of his 39-year-old self.
Through the skilful variations in the manner of his listening, Petherbridge tellingly communicates the ironies of this temporal juxtaposition - the younger Krapp, a failed key love affair and his mother's death apparently behind him, brusquely confident that he wouldn't want those years back; the ancient Krapp, almost despite himself, belying that relatively callow "fire in me now" prophecy. Notice the way Petherbridge, magnetised to these past intimacies, begins to cradle the tape recorder with involuntary tenderness. Remark how he apes the laughter of his younger self with the embarrassing, uncertain eagerness of someone anxious not to have missed a joke, and observe how he virtually garrottes the microphone as he wraps the wire back round it, presumably for the last time. This actor, naturally rather droopy and etiolated, can't quite persuade you of Krapp's former passion, but he provides enough detail on other counts to distract from that drawback.
Over at the Piccadilly, where the evicted Peter Hall company has now found a home, a new central aisle and a stage brought out over the old orchestra pit give the theatre a most successful added charge of intimacy. It would be inaccurate to state that the re-cast production achieves the full excellence of the Alan Howard/ Ben Kingsley double act, seen last year at the Old Vic. But you lose any sense of a B-list replacement when watching Alan Dobie's bulky white-bearded little Estragon, delivering his deflating comebacks with a wonderfully unrushed throw-away timing, or Terence Rigby's blackly hilarious Pozzo, who is like a country squire punctiliously impersonated by an East End thug with a decadent taste for on-the-side amateur theatricals.
The evening is a rich demonstration of the indestructible strength of Peter Hall's loving, poetic conception of the play and his incomparable command of its musicality. The production will be a rewarding experience both for those who did and for those who did not see the original cast.
Krapp: in rep (0171-638 8891); Waiting for Godot: in rep to 25 April (0171-369 1734)