Set over one evening in a northern pub in the 1980s, Jim Cartwright's Two is a masterful study of human emotion at its finest. It features fourteen distinctive characters all played by just two actors; seven each. There is nothing particularly special about any of them on the surface; they are just ordinary people. However, Cartwright's skill is the manner in which he conveys their feelings by sharing their private moments with us in the form of dialogue or internal monologue. It isn't immediately apparent but there is a hidden structure of twos (words repeated in succession) and sevens (phrases broken down into sections) which is rather clever. At this point I have to confess to having studied the text some years ago, so it isn't something an average audience member would notice in the course of the play.  Nevertheless, his writing style provides a lyrical rhythm which is often soothing, sometimes disturbing. 

Cameron Robertson and Holly Clark open the proceedings as the Landlord and Landlady from behind an authentic bar in the room above the Priory Arms, and it isn't long before we witness their first bout of bickering as they carry on serving their many imaginary customers through gritted teeth while trying to maintain an air of professionalism. As the various other characters emerge and disappear by way of some quick costume changes, the apparent disintegration of the relationship escalates and their mutual disdain highlights a denial of some underlying issue. This is finally revealed in the closing confrontational scene leading to a truly poignant and heart-wrenching conclusion.

Of the couples, there are some lovely comic touches from the fluttering Moth as he flirts outrageously with the females in the audience while Maudie, his long-suffering girlfriend, can't resist his Scouse charms despite him being an abject scrounger. Equally, as Mr and Mrs Iger, Robertson's bumbling timidity brought feebleness to a new level – juxtaposed with Clark's portrayal of a crazed rock-chick vixen obsessed with big men. Fred and Alice, another loving couple with very simple pleasures in life, support each other with their obsessive disorders humourously. On the dark side, Lesley is the dutifully submissive wife of Roy whose controlling nature is so menacing, it makes very uncomfortable viewing. 

Clark also provides two quite different characters as two old women, one escaping her daily routine caring for her ailing husband at home with a well-deserved drink while rampantly fantasising about her butcher. The other is a drunken mistress, complete with flirty bottom, naughtily keeping a close eye on her affair while he's with his wife.  Robertson's Old Man reminisces sweetly about his departed wife but it's his Little Boy who is all cute and tearful that subsequently provides the catalyst for the denouement.

Robertson and Clark do have great chemistry together and it is in each of their various couplings that the dynamics are clear and defined. However director Neil-Michael Marriott has, in attempting to differentiate between characters, lost sight of some of the subtlety and rhythm of the words themselves as the temptation to resort to stereotype and caricature has influenced the delivery of the lines. Consequently, it felt a little laboured at times and several hiatuses could do with being removed – but overall I was moved by this beautifully arranged piece.

TWO by Jim Cartwright, at The Priory ArmsJoe Crystal reviews Two at The Priory Arms3