As Mrs Chrisparkle and I were having a coffee in the summer sunshine (actually, during a brief unrainy moment) in the Underbelly Complex, a friendly chap with a handful of flyers asked us if we had “got our lunchtime theatre sorted”, whilst offering us a flyer for “Frank Sent Me”. “Indeed!” I replied brightly, “that’s the very play we’ve got tickets for!” “Oh, great!” he replied with a look of relief, “see you there”, which made me wonder slightly if anyone else would be turning up for the performance.
Fifteen minutes before it was due to start, we popped round to the Dairy Room and started to form the queue. There was one other man there. I was beginning to get worried. I needn’t have though, as loads of people suddenly appeared with about two minutes to spare, and we all trudged up the staircase into a room that I expect in real life is a rather grand Edinburgh University lecture room. The play began with a man coming on stage with not much on (but still decent) slowly getting dressed, apparently for a meeting. It was the man with the flyers, which was a good reminder that these fringe productions sometimes get assembled on the flimsiest of budgets, and with an awful lot of goodwill.
He was playing Howe, an underworld enforcer about to meet his match. Frank, the boss, has obviously had enough of him, although we never find out why; I guess all underworld enforcers have their “best by” dates. Tough, serious, knowing today’s the day he was going to be taken away and “dealt with”, Howe’s going to meet whoever it is that Frank sends to do the deed with dignity and honour, his head high, his integrity intact. But two things stand this manful stolidity on its head. One is that Howe’s partner, Wallace, is also a man – and that their relationship is never questioned as being anything other than something perfectly ordinary, which is delightfully non-judgmental for a gangsterland drama. The other is that the chap Frank sends to collect Howe is a dork called Blake, an inexperienced, ham-fisted, matey coward whose inability to do the job is the biggest slap in the face to the tough guy. Having a knobhead come to whisk him away is more insulting than death itself. When Blake, inevitably, fails at his task, it’s up to Howe to rescue the situation – but what does he do?
It’s a surprisingly sensitive tale of a man facing death, the man who’s got to kill him, and the man who has to live with the aftermath. In amongst all the bravado this is basically a domestic black comedy; the man facing the death sentence still has to keep on the right side of his occasionally tetchy partner, as you get little insights into the rifts that have developed between them over the years. But it’s a relationship which, despite everything, is pretty solid. Tight and tautly written by Julian Poidevin, the promotional material described it as Ortonesque with which I would agree in part; but it doesn’t have Orton’s sense of the outrageous, and the central relationship between Howe and Wallace is more realistic than if it had been Orton’s work. It doesn’t really need comparing with anything else – it is its own thing, and very satisfactorily so.
It features three excellent performances. Rob Pomfret (our man with the flyers) is very convincing as Howe, never letting us overlook the seriousness of the events unfolding as the story progresses, and you can imagine he would be a slick operator with his enforcer’s hat on. Despite his job, you actually feel sorry for him and identify with him to the extent that you wonder how you would cope in the same boat. Matthew Gibbs as Wallace provides the perfect foil to him with his house-proud, rather motherly, “let’s not make a fuss” attitude. Actually he reminded me of my late Auntie Joan, keeping the place immaculate, being unnecessarily generous to guests, adopting a “shush and get on with it” manner even when the consequences could be ghastly. It’s a really persuasive study of someone who has little vision but makes up for it with heaps of practicality. And there’s a very nice comic (but not too comic) performance by Izaak Cainer as the hopeless Blake, trying to be positive and upbeat whilst stifling fear-induced vomiting. We were in the front row of this tiny theatre and the action was taking place probably no more than five feet away from our noses, and I was really impressed with the concentration and complete immersion in the characters by all three actors. They were really living it! All in all, a superb production, a satisfying and constantly surprising story performed with elegance, wit and style.
We bumped into Mr Pomfret again outside after the show. I told him it was really good – and he seemed pleased!