Two suited old men witter on about nothing in particular in the corner of a garden, later joined by two unrelated women and a peculiar young man who lifts up the metal furniture like weights in a gym.
Are we in a seaside hotel, or a retirement home, or a forgotten outpost of the British Legion? Gradually it is revealed that these people are confined under sufferance. There are moments of incontinent emotionalism, tears, and hints of irregular behaviour with small girls.
David Storey's 1970 play – the third in a series of four masterful poetic dramas directed at the Royal Court by Lindsay Anderson – was written for the elegant, ethereal cut and thrust of John Gielgud as Harry and Ralph Richardson as Jack; it's the best part of Amelia Sears's production that Jack Shepherd and Paul Copley play these roles without any sort of deference to their predecessors.
They are both "youthful" older actors (older than Gielgud and Richardson were in 1970) and they play the lines – there's hardly a speech longer than a random thought – at a great pace, bit of a lick in fact, no hanging about.
This is good in one way. There's no interval in the smaller of the Arcola spaces, which has been transformed by designer Naomi Dawson into an autumnal enclosure of garden benches for the audience on four sides, flag-stones, bits of lawn, trellis and brickwork, piles of leaves.
But the musical rhythm of the play suffers without the half-time break, and there's finally too little variation of pace. On the other hand, you do believe more in the characters; Gielgud was never convincing as a heating engineer, nor Richardson as a foodstuffs distributor, really. And there's an earthier humour about the stories they tell, and the furtiveness of Jack's sly magic tricks.
Anderson always claimed Chekhovian status for the play; I wasn't too sure about that after the last London revival twenty years ago starring Paul Eddington and Richard Briers. But there's certainly something haunting about it, even without the two original maestros, and this nagging poetical potency is only reinforced with the delightful incursion of Tessa Peake-Jones as a nudge-nudge, wink-wink Marjorie and Linda Broughton as her more dirty-minded companion Kathleen.
The quadrille of empty manners and false politesse is more evenly engaged than in some humorous face-off between the elegance of the men and the vulgarity of the women. And Joseph Arkley – so good recently at this address in The Jungle of the Cities – makes of the slow-witted attendant Alfred a mysteriously lobotomised caged animal, an athlete as tethered emotionally as he is physically.