The phrase “thought provoking” is bandied about far too frequently when describing theatre but that’s exactly what The Handyman is; thought provoking. Written by Ronald Harwood and produced by the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, The Handyman tackles the themes of truth, justice and memory in a respectful, yet gripping way.
It’s set in a Sussex garden. Cressida and Julian Field (played by Caroline Langrishe and Adrian Lukis) find their comfortable, middle-class world ripped apart when two police officers investigating war crimes turn up to accuse their life-long handyman Roman Kozachenk (Timothy West) of committing an atrocity during World War II.
The minimal set allows the actors to focus on the difficult subject matter but Sean Cavanagh’s powerful use of projections is startling and adds gravitas to the production. Vanessa Redgrave and Steven Berkoff are featured in these, giving haunting performances that are reminiscent of Holocaust survivors’ video testimonies.
As the accused Ukrainian, Timothy West draws the audience in so they too find themselves questioning his guilt and innocence. With the aide of dialect coach Charmain Hoarde, West recreates a Ukrainian accent perfectly and gives a gripping, and at times sinister, performance of a tortured man.
Langrishe is brutal in her role as Roman’s employer cum surrogate daughter and her gradual descent into what can only be described as temporary insanity, is both horrifying and realistic. Opposite her Lukis gives a confident performance as a man confused by his own opinions and his brusque, yet flippant, manner is convincing.
Providing the voice of reason in the play, Carolyn Backhouse oozes self-assuredness as Roman’s defence lawyer Marian Stone. Managing to convey various historical points of view without ever becoming dull or preachy, Backhouse delivers a sterling performance and forces the audience to address their own complacency.
And that is what is excellent about this play. It rips the Holocaust out of history and smashes it into sleepy English garden, making both the characters and the audience draw their own opinions on the subject. This is by no means an enjoyable play, but it is extraordinary in its delivery.