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Theatre in Review: One Hand Clapping (House of Orphans/59E59)

Eve Burley. Photo: Emma Phillipson

One Hand Clapping is the title of Lucia Cox's play, adapted from a novel by Anthony Burgess; it is also the title of a West End play attended by Howard and Janet Shirley, characters invented by Burgess. "It's been well-reviewed in The Daily Window," says Howard. "It's dealing with the decay and decadence in the world about us. Very witty." Janet is unamused: "It's a silly sort of name. How can you have just one hand clapping? I mean, there'd be no noise." Howard tries to explain the Zen Buddhist concept to her, but she remains firm: "I should have been quite happy to be back in our little house in Bradcaster, sitting by the fire, watching TV.....I almost felt like crying."

A working-class couple who have hit the jackpot, Howard and Janet are on a kind of forced march through the best of everything -- food, drink, culture, and travel. As it happens, the abundance of luxury provides satiety but not satisfaction -- more often than not, Janet is nauseated or hungover -- and, in Burgess' view, this bacchanal can only end badly. The fault, it seems, lies not in the stars, but in the Shirleys and the world they inhabit.

A well-honed icepick aimed at the heart of what the historian David Kynaston has called "modernity Britain," Burgess' satire focuses on the country's long-delayed postwar prosperity, which, in his view, brought with it blandness, standardization, and a vacuum where culture ought to be. As someone comments, late in the play, this sceptered isle has become a kind of poor man's United States, utterly lacking in character -- and Howard and Janet are its perfect representatives.

"I came out of school knowing absolutely nothing," says Janet, adding that her teachers declined to addle her head with subjects like Shakespeare. She lives with Howard in a council estate. He sells used cars for a living and she stocks the shelves at a grocery store. They dine on baked beans on toast and pass their evenings in front of the telly. As far as Janet is concerned, they have everything they need. But Howard, irritated by a game show titled Over and Over, to which Janet is devoted, mutters, "I'd like to live like a millionaire for, say, one month....then to snuff it, having tasted a bit of life. Because, when all's said and done, there's not all that much to live for, is there?"

Howard is a genius of a sort, having a photographic memory, which allows him take in the contents of a printed page with a single glance. He manages to get on Over and Over, where he wins a thousand pounds -- then, through a careful study of the racing dailies, hits the tracks, where he parlays his nest egg into 79,000 pounds. What follows is a largely joyless spree in which Howard and Shirley -- she is usually clad in a mink coat -- partake of posh hotels, champagne from very good years, and a first-class trip to the US. Meanwhile, a snake has appeared in this would-be Eden in the form of Redvers Glass, a starving writer ("I'm writing the story of my life....in verse."), who becomes the object of Howard's bounty and who also helps himself to Janet when Howard isn't looking.

The action reaches a climax when Howard and Janet return home for Janet's birthday, and she learns his plans for the final disposition of the remaining 55,000 pounds. I can't tell you what it is, but let's say Howard turns out to be someone who means what he says, Janet is revealed as wilier than previously indicated, and the arrogant Glass proves to be the perfect fall guy.

As a novel, One Hand Clapping beguiles, thanks to Burgess' skill as a ventriloquist; he perfectly captures Janet's voice, creating an evocative world as seen through her eyes, setting us up for a big surprise when, near the end, she suddenly drops the passive-housewife act and takes charge of the situation. (The last ten minutes or so are rather like an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.) On stage, this strategy presents problems that Cox, who also directed, has not been able to fully solve. More than half of the play is narrated, keeping it from building much dramatic momentum. Even so, there are far too many lengthy pauses between scenes, creating a choppy rhythm that compares unfavorably with the smoothly flowing prose narrative. And the climax, which involves life-or-death matters, is insufficiently dramatic -- and, in turn, detracts from a coda that promises acts of mayhem to come.

On the plus side, the script does capture Janet's distinctive voice. "It's amazing what clothes do for you," she says. "If I hadn't had my mink I would have felt very small. As it was, I saw nobody with a coat like mine, but I saw plenty having a good look, and I heard someone say 'This is her third husband' like I was a film star." As played by Eve Burley, she is artlessly ingratiating, displaying a box of corn flakes with a small flourish of her hands, as if starring in her own television commercial; she is also convincing when Janet's tougher, more resilient side comes into view. Oliver Devoti's Howard is so flat of affect that he almost seems like a case of Asperger's Syndrome; this works well enough at first, but it weakens the later scenes, when he laments their inability to be "true to the great men who've gone before us....It's we who've betrayed things. The kind of world these men in the past had in mind. We've let them down, you and me and everybody." Adam Urey is sufficiently oily both (on stage) as Glass, who seduces Janet, and (on video) as the host of Over and Over. Richard Stott is fine, also on video, as a contestant on Over and Over.

Meriel Pym's set design features a distinctively awful British kind of floral wallpaper and a linoleum floor, with such evocative details as cans of Heinz baked beans and a bottle of Fairy soap. (Another excellent detail: Howard is reading an authentic-looking paperback copy of Call for the Dead, John Le Carré's first novel, published around the same time as One Hand Clapping.) The stage is littered with television screens for the video sequences, devised by Owen Rafferty, of episodes of Over and Over along with sequences of period television commercials that cover the scene changes. Rafferty's lighting (with Cox) is solid; his sound design includes game show broadcasts plus selections of Dixieland jazz, drumrolls, moving trains, and Ernest Gold's theme from the film Exodus.

A not entirely successful adaptation, the worst thing you can say about One Hand Clapping is that it might stir up some interest in Burgess, one of the great 20th-century novelists and currently something of a forgotten figure. If that gets people reading this novel -- and A Clockwork Orange, The Long Day Wanes, and Earthly Powers -- then Howard and Janet's suffering will not be in vain. -- David Barbour


(11 May 2015)

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