Jim Cartwright's Two began life at the Bolton Octagon in 1989 before going on to widespread success at every level from the Old Vic to amateur societies. This revival at its original home is rather different, however, as the two-week run is followed by the premiere of Two 2, a new play which reflects the problems that have beset the licensed trade since 1989: the pub in Cartwright's original play faces closure.
But for now Two is still fresh and full of life - and the pub is full. The landlady and the landlord begin the evening squeezing past each other behind the bar and bickering, apparently without bitterness: she finds his unchanging repartee with customers desperately irritating, he reckons she doesn't concentrate enough on business - too much chat and too many drinks on the house.
The long narrative of the evening reveals the depth of their antagonism and the tragedy behind it. But the joy of the play for the audience (and, one suspects, the actors) is the series of short narratives, as the customers deliver lonely monologues or squabble for no reason. These, more often comic than not, are played by the same two actors, transformed from landlord or landlady by a coat, padding or a pair of glasses.
Katy Cavanagh and Colin Connor are thoroughly convincing as the central couple, allowing the characters to develop slowly with each brief scene until the final outpouring of intense emotion. By contrast many of the other characters veer towards caricature, sometimes too much so, but the skill with which they change appearance, age, accent, even size, is always impressive. Connor even makes his mark as a lad who's lost his dad and Cavanagh is especially moving at the other end of the age range - the old woman taking a brief break from coping with a helplessly disabled husband.
If many of the short scenes are simple entertainment, the second half begins with a chilling ten minutes in the company of a Northern Irish control freak (Connor running through his repertoire of accents) whose constant humiliation of his partner is based on his conviction that she is looking at other men or talking about him. Here Connor and Cavanagh are far away from the light-hearted revue sketch mood of some of the episodes.
David Thacker's production is economical in every way. Ciaran Bagnall's set does away with open spaces, with the central bar and steps to various levels, to suggest a crowded pub even with only two actors. Props are non-existent and everything is mimed, the only way to maintain pace with all those pints to be pulled, and the audience plays a key role, filling in for the pub's customers, both individually and collectively.
Running time: One hour, 50 minutes
Two runs at the Octagon, Bolton, until 6 February.