At the end, the play turns into a lament for our island race, with Stephen Moore’s Jack litanising our proud discovery of radar, jet propulsion, the steam engine, penicillin and television as he stands to attention by the Union Jack drooping from a tall white pole in the garden.
When John Gielgud played Jack and Ralph Richardson his companion Harry in the original 1970 production by Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court, the piece seemed ideally tailored to the ethereal distraction of the first and the secretive, pungent dottiness of the second.
The game was nearly up when Paul Eddington and Richard Briers exposed the threadbare contrivance and self-consciousness of the writing in a poor West End revival fifteen years ago. But Stephen Moore – equipped with a mysterious hanging ear piece (for effect? for prompts? who knows?) – and David Calder mine a rich vein of baffled disappointment and yonderly reminiscence in a tracery of tears.
Unwin doesn’t allow the actors to drift off into self-indulgent reverie, and the brutal counterpoint of the old biddies who first appear in the second scene – Nichola McAuliffe and Lesley Joseph are nothing if not fruity, not to say salty, not to say downright belligerent – pushes the old boys dangerously near the rocks of emotional discomfort and former sexual misdemeanours.
There’s the slightest hint of paedophilia and unruly sexual appetite among the broader hints of failed marriages, economic hardship and unacknowledged relatives, while an apparently lobotomised, muscular garden attendant (Matthew Wilson) lifts the heavy iron chairs and table with the symbolic menace of Marco in A View From the Bridge.
Moore and Calder play the text like a sort of music of amnesia, a sinfonietta of senior moments, while Unwin’s exposition of a play that doesn’t really improve with age and now looks like poor man’s Beckett, or indeed Bennett, is beautifully abetted by Peter Mumford’s lighting, scudding clouds on Paul Wills’ simple backdrop darkening with the afternoon and assuming a tinge of grey, and of menace.