The warm regard in which David Essex is held by North East audiences was evident on opening night. But it wasn’t enough to keep everyone in their seats beyond the interval, when significant gaps opened up in the circle.
The trouble with Morris Panych’s play is that it’s difficult to get a handle on.
If you had let Harold Pinter loose on an episode of Last of the Summer Wine, you might have got something like it – though not, of course, vintage Pinter or indeed Roy Clarke (creator of Compo, Clegg and company).
This is a kitchen sink drama outside a domestic setting. This kitchen lies, we are led to believe, beneath a busy upmarket restaurant, although at first I suspected magic realism rather than gritty realism.
The place looks so grimy and outdated that you can imagine the establishment above might have floated off to a new location 20 years ago, leaving the unsuspecting below-stairs workforce marooned amid their dirty plates.
Presiding over this depressing subterranean empire is David Essex’s Dressler who specialises in massive self-delusion. Possibly to make the mundane task of washing crockery bearable, he turns it into some sort of metaphor for living. It is all about duty and pride.
“We are like the foundations of this building – reliability,” he declares. And to add a bit of macho gloss: “Men crumble down here – crumble and disintegrate.”
There is no better example of that than Moss, played by Andrew Jarvis as the most startling example of human decrepitude since... well, perhaps since Compo, Roy Clarke’s roguish tramp.
Moss coughs, splutters, utters bizarre inanities. Mostly he’s afraid of losing his job – even when the job has actually been taken away from him.
His peace of mind is hardly improved by the arrival of Emmett (Rik Makarem), one-time City whizz-kid fallen on hard times. Once he ate in the restaurant above, now he has to wash up while listening to Dressler’s homilies over the soap suds.
Emmett tries to improve things with a bit of industrial action but it’s hard when your workmates are either opposed or doolally.
I was reminded a little of Wet House, Paddy Campbell’s recent play for Live Theatre, which also has a new boy arriving in a challenging working environment bossed by an alpha male who has become a little too big for his boots.
But this is by far the inferior product, falling short of Pinteresque menace or the relentless comedy of a Clarke. It does have the patently likeable David Essex.. but stardust it lacks in abundance.