West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
David Threlfall has always been a brave, sometimes foolhardy actor. He is drawn to and capable of physical extremes, still most famously as Smike in the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby. Since then he has sought roles of similar extremity, sometimes classical, like Oedipus, more often in new work such as Rod Wooden's ferocious Your Home in the West, occasionally in downright oddities such as Riddley Walker. His career, like his style, is all about effervescence and explosion. He's an actor who simply goes for it.
In Richard Hope's new play , he's gone for Norman Nestor, an out-at-elbows, bobble-hatted septuagenarian, a Lancastrian Compo with a dash of Leopold Bloom. Norman returns home after a weekend - or a lifetime of wandering - to find that his son doesn't know him, and his wife is entertaining a gaggle of familiar suitors. This is an inspired beginning, both in the writing and the way Threlfall carries himself down the steep terrace of Peter Mumford's stylised set with the careful spraddle of a man who only rarely glimpses his own feet.
So he begins the mock-epic of his odyssey around Failsworth (near Oldham, motto: "True Worth Never Fails"). It begins with a mighty clash between "The Ship and Anchor" and "The Angry Mariner" in the third round of the local cup with the overweening Hector as captain and coach of the "Ship", and a one-eyed referee called Clopsey. His peregrinations take in the pneumatic witchery of Laura Lee, and an encounter with his dead brother and mother beside the canal. Except that Norman mistook the new bypass for the old canal; the threnody he sings is more of change and loss.
"Home", following his odyssean conceit, is Hope's keyword; his message that it is a time, not a place - that it leaves us, not vice versa. And its vowel is Threlfall's keynote, there, and in the "Oh" that comes from the depths with a rich, northern roundness of pain and comic wonderment and finds its image in orbs red-rimmed from a lifetime in tap-rooms.
Though close to being a one-man show, Jude Kelly's skilful production elicits excellent support from Lesley Nicol tripling the female roles, and from the shell-suited swagger of James Weaver as Norman's chancy son. The Chorus, too, is cleverly and pointedly deployed.
For all its initial ingenuity, does not sustain enough surprise or balanced conflict as a play. Richard Hope has chosen busy streets to walk along, and the sharper elbows of Jim Cartwright can sometimes be felt. But the writing shows enough heart, acuity and wit to make me eager for further work. He is fortunate to have an actor giving a performance of a scale, resonance and sensitivity unlikely to be bettered anywhere this season.
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