The best acting at Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses may have been director Nigel Harman’s actress wife, Lucy Liemann – she’s the bossy headmistress lusted after by Tom Hollander’s Rev on BBC2 – leaning forward in her seat chin in hand to demonstrate rapt attention.

It’s possible the delightful Ms Liemann was genuinely engrossed, this is assuredly a piece of theatre for theatrical connoisseurs; but among the rest of the eighty-five members of the audience – I had time to count them, twice – there was an amount of watch-checking and light dozing that suggests this is also a production for acquired tastes.

You may well acquire it: there’s something instantly inviting about the bench on the seaside pier where average Tom meets average Mary and the crash of the waves under the boardwalk echoes the crash of the noisy internal monologues through which they convince themselves to first connect.  Although the coupling seems creepy, we move seamlessly into The Bow of Ulysses which revisits the same pair twenty years on, swapping recriminations about their wasted marriage and the miseries visited on each other by their daily routines and nightly disappointment.

There are moments of crisp comedy as they trade complaints and apportion blame with cheerful vulgarity but this being a Steven Berkoff script, the dialogue celebrates literary language at length, and riffs on metaphor and poetry. But it felt as though I’d spilled an old box of my A-Level English notes bringing it down from the loft, and T S Eliot, Dylan Thomas and James Joyce had all got jumbled together on the landing.

Shaun Dooley has made a splendid career out of pasty-faced losers, and elevates Tom with physical energy, leaping on and over the bench, and driving the speeches with proud vocal force. As a constantly watchful Mary, Emily Bruni parries these thrusts with weighted pauses and painfully sharp timing to undercut and undermine him.

Sometimes Berkoff’s observations and phrases pull you up short.  Is a woman’s neck like a baby’s thigh? I don’t pretend to be an expert on either subject, but either texturally, or textually, I just can’t see it.

 

until 5 November.