First Night: Double act in a game that is unforgettable

Endgame, the Barbican London

THE ODDS might seem to be fairly formidably stacked against the possibility of mirth in a play with a post-apocalyptic setting where the survivors are a blind wheelchair-bound tyrant, a lame servant and two aged parents, stashed in dustbins, who are literally, as opposed to alcoholically, legless. Certainly, there's no danger of mistaking Samuel Beckett's Endgame for Hello, Dolly! .

But as one of his characters observes: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness", or at least there's a perspective from which that does not seem self-contradictory. The play's grim gallows-humour is uplifting because it refuses to flinch from what is most depressing in the human lot. Its jokes outwit and outstare the worst, as when Clov asks: "Do you believe in the life to come?" and Hamm finesses the question by answering: "Mine was always that ..."

Antoni Libera's compelling and meticulous production, now at the Barbican as part of the Beckett Festival, vividly emphasises the analogy between the routines and stories that help the characters impose some shape on their depleted existence and the theatrical routines necessary to keep a show from dying the death.

"What is there to keep me here?" inquires Clov. "The dialogue," replies Hamm, emphasising that they are all trapped in a script as well as a life.

Alan Stanford and Barry McGovern make a splendid double act as the mutually and fractiously dependent master and servant.

Stanford's Hamm, with his rich grandiloquent voice and spoilt sulks, is certainly the pettish ham actor that his name denotes.

But he can also hit notes of cosmic desolating tragedy. Asked to check what the old father is up to in his bin, Clov reports that "He's crying." "Then he's living," declares Hamm and Stanford gives those three words a rueful amplitude that makes them conjure up Lear's more expansive perception that when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.

McGovern's Clov counters the fruity Englishness of his master with his wonderful gruffly sardonic Irish inflections. The ambiguity as to whether this discontented Caliban can ever kick his dependency on Beckett's crippled Prospero is heightened by the fact that he keeps his position, dressed for departure, holding the door, but not leaving, throughout the curtain calls.

Unforgettable.

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