The Unexpected Man, Swan Theatre, Yeovil

WHAT would you do if you realised the only other person in your train compartment was your favourite writer, the author of the book you have brought to read on the long journey from Paris to Frankfurt?

You might, as Martha does in Yasmina Reza’s dazzling 1995 play, after she recognises the author, decide not to get the book out. Instead you sit there, mulling over the latest and previous books by this acclaimed writer, reflecting on your life and your marriage to your late husband. Until, suddenly, about three-quarters of the way to journey’s end, you decide to get the book out and read it.

What would you do, after hours of silent co-existent travel, if you noticed that the book your fellow traveller has taken out of her bag is your latest novel?

How do you break that silence which has almost become a character in its own right? And what happens next?

In this two-hander, Reza, the brilliant French playwright who is best knnwn for Art and God of Carnage, has pared her dramatic focus down to the minimum. There is no set, and in Robert Graydon’s intelligent and insightful production, there are no sound effects, just brief snatches of music played by pianist Mike Stanley on his own 1931 Bosendorfer grand piano.

The structure of the play is challenging for any actor, and exceptionally so for amateurs. The man and the woman – William O’Neill and Sarah Ambrose – speak in monologues, and only at the very end is there a conversation. It’s worth the wait!

Frankly, you don’t much like the novelist – in his own words he is bitter, cynical, vain, combative and argumentative. He broods about the futility of life and in particular of writing. But there is something else, a vulnerability which gradually allows the audience to see something beyond an ego.

The woman – for whom he imagines all manner of experiences and interests – is more sympathetic, strong, intelligent and with surprising emotional courage.

It sounds as if it is one-dimensional, but far from it. It is multi-layered, revelatory and often very funny. Reza is rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious, but there are lines here which will certainly make you grin. The monologue in which the writer talks about his piano lessons is exceedingly funny.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of this production – all credit to Robert Graydon and his cast – is the gradual sense of gathering speed, while nothing is really happening. By the time the characters speak to each other, the train is rattling along and the final moments are, yes, laugh-out-loud funny.

The Unexpected Man runs at the Swan Theatre until Saturday 24th September.


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