Could there be a more mundane title for a play than The Handyman? A title which gives nothing away but those who are aware of Ronald Harwood’s more dramatic works will know that he does not shirk serious subjects and will inevitably give fair hearing to all sides of a situation.
The play starts peacefully enough. Glorious sunshine, the birds are singing and the lush garden speaks of tranquillity but a mention of police cars suggests that the peace is about to be shattered. And indeed it is. For many years ‘Ronko’ has been part of the family; in fact a godsend as he cooks, repairs, gardens and sews but the law thinks it has caught up with him and uncovered crimes committed more than half a century ago.
Could this apparently gentle Ukrainian who ‘blubs’ have committed atrocities during the war which saw the death of hundreds of Jews? In a series of interviews accusations are made. Ronko often ‘can’t remember’ but is honest enough to say he does not like communists and Jews.
These question and answer sessions make for gripping viewing and hearing, interesting and thought-provoking arguments are put forward such as ‘why prosecute crimes that occurred so long ago? But then there is the retort ’at least he has had fifty years longer on the planet than those he killed’.
For much of the play the audience is silent wrapped up in the drama of the situation and it would not be fair to say how the play ends except that the last scene seems very ‘staged’ and although it may be powerful lacks the feel of watching real people. They are types and mouthpieces rather than persons who are living the situation.
The cast do well with the material given. Caroline Langrishe effectively shows the strain that Cressida is undergoing and Adrian Lukis brings out the humour as the blustering and arrogant money fixated Julian while Carolyn Backhouse shows just the right amount of personal feeling underneath her professional façade. James Simmons and Anthony Houghton keep the tension going in the interviews and as a bonus the audience gets to see Steven Berkoff and Vanessa Redgrave, but only on video. She particularly is terrific.
In the title role Timothy West again demonstrates what a fine actor he is. He shows strength and weakness, warmth and cold and manages to make the enigmatic real and believable. It is a beautifully understated and compelling performance. The production is well paced; it looks good; the acting capable and for three quarters of the play it grips but we never really feel or care for the characters so we come away not as moved as I expect Ronald Harwood would wish.