Cottesloe (National Theatre)
Where: West End
14 June 2001 WOS Rating: Average Reader Rating: Reader Reviews: View and add to our user reviews There’s a scene in Mike Leigh’s breathtaking Secrets and Lies film in which a shambolic figure lurches into photographer Timothy Spall’s office. Derelict and bereft, he trumpets his past successes more to highlight his current predicament than to garner sympathy. The actor was Ron Cook, and in Patrick Marber’s engrossing new work we find Cook once again imploring the Fates and God – pleading for identity as his day of reckoning approaches.
The Cottesloe’s stage revolves merrily throughout Marber’s production, like some arbitrary carousel. Or maybe it’s the turning wheel of life we’re being invited to contemplate. But we open with a ruefully shabby Cook, as
Howard Katz, awaking on a park bench. You can virtually taste the bitter dregs of cheap whisky, and almost recoil from the impression of harsh breath and stale clothing.
However, we soon switch to Katz’s earlier affluent life as a show business agent. Surrounded by friends and family, there’s a swagger in his step and brutality in his business affairs: “Work? You’ve had too much work … on your face!” he rasps at one ageing starlet. Meanwhile, his extended family’s aspirations begin to buckle under the strains of everyday agonising. Katz himself remains philosophical and caring in private, whilst thrusting his faded charisma on aspiring wannabes. And still the park bench stays central to proceedings throughout – observing, beckoning and looming like some inevitable tomb. With sagacious angst, Katz paces furiously, chain smokes, frets and grasps. “What do you value …
really”? asks his wife, before sloping off in disillusionment.
Cook is hugely imposing as a man whose principles constantly waver as life crumbles around him. A sturdy ensemble change roles with deft precision, presenting Cook with a series of platforms to embark on his character's quest for self-discovery. The play’s second half offers up almost unrelenting nihilism, leavened by occasional grim humour. Scared and scarred, Katz still clings to shreds of the old morality, such as when the family business is threatened with modernisation. And yet when a moment of enlightenment is finally granted him, it’s to rediscover buried emotions that bring the cycle of birth and death to a full circle.
Outside on the South Bank, a trio of real life Katzs ritually taunted the passers by. Your reviewer chose an appropriate bench, within earshot of the insults but out of the hobos’ line of fire. At which point the advice of Katz’s father to his despairing son rang back with sudden clarity: “Suffer by all means … but
don’t walk away.”
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