All That Fall (Wilton's Music Hall)
Beckett's radio play is staged by Out of Joint
One of the most surprising selections in Michael Billington's recent 101 Greatest Plays was Beckett's All That Fall, a 1957 radio piece that Beckett himself never wanted done in the theatre but for which his estate gives permission as long as the theatricality preserves the radio-ness of the piece.
Max Stafford-Clark, preparing this "sonic experience" for Out of Joint (co-produced with the Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, where it was seen last year), was quizzed on his vision for the piece. He had none, he said (the right answer). Neither do we. We sit on chairs in one of the most beautiful interiors in London theatre with black masks on.
The play – just sixty minutes on this occasion; Trevor Nunn's full-blown staging (script-in-hands as if in a recording studio), with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, lasted eighty minutes – is the progress of old Maddy Rooney along an Irish country road to meet her blind husband off a train. On the way she meets local characters (from Beckett's youth in Foxrock) such as the clerk of the racecourse, a puffing cyclist and a God-fearing spinster.
It's a lovely, lilting, fresh air sort of a script shot through with pain of death (of course) and loss of childhood, and Stafford-Clark, with sound designer Dyfan Jones, makes the arrival of the train as thrilling as that of the helicopter in Miss Saigon. There's a stereophonic sound system, too, moving its point of entry throughout, as the actors snake through the theatre. As Maddy was helped into the clerk's car ("I'm coming, give me time, I'm as stiff as yourself"), I was poked amiably in the ribs and shoulder.
I love the play as much as Billington, but its beauty is the beauty of Beckett's novels, not the stark, stony (still funny) tales of resilience in Godot, Endgame or Not I. And here, as the charabanc moves on round the theatre, it's hard to catch quite a lot of the lines in the echoing acoustic. I preferred the version by the Irish company Pan Pan at the first Enniskillen festival, where the audience sat in rocking chairs (with skull and crossbones cushions) for a light and sound show with the recorded voices out of sight around them.
But it is a treat to hear Bríd Brennan as Mrs Rooney, her voice a rich tapestry of humour, local gossip, descriptive detail and accusatory sorrow, and other vocal colours are provided by Gary Lilburn, Tara Flynn and Frank Laverty in a cast of six, though you can't put a name to a voice as you listen beyond Brennan's, even though I tried by taking one or two illicit peeks through my mask.
All that Fall runs at Wilton's Music Hall until 9 April.