It is not surprising that the Jermyn Street Theatre’s production of All That Fall sold out in under three days: a rare Samuel Beckett play, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, in a 70 seat theatre tucked away behind Piccadilly Circus. A radio play written in 1956, it has never before been staged despite luminaries such as Ingmar Bergman and Laurence Olivier applying for the rights, and so to maintain the integrity of the piece as it was originally intended, Nunn presents to us a staged reading of the play.
The actors sit to the sides of the stage, rising to take the floor as it is their turn to speak, scripts in hand and enacting any sound effects that accompany their arrival. For this is a piece of drama uniquely interested in the soundscape it is creating as a haunting picture of rural Ireland is evoked, laced through with a desolate humour, in which the spectre of death is never far away.
For Beckett, the play is relatively accessible. Eileen Atkins plays Maddy Rooney, an archetypal Irish septuagenarian who makes her trudging way along a country road to pick her blind husband from the train station. She encounters a motley crew of characters on her way and whilst waiting, but once she collects Michael Gambon’s Dan, their journey back is charged with great emotion and mystery. Beckett’s poetic language is achingly poignant, especially on the subjects of old age, companionship and loss, and though densely layered with a world of references, Nunn’s production maintains a clarity of intense purpose.
Atkins is heartbreakingly direct as Maddy: fragile, feisty, fiercely funny at times too, especially in a delicious moment as she has to be helped into a car, where a rare moment of physical acting leads to some hilarious miming with Gerard Horan’s Mr Slocum. She lacerates Catherine Cusack’s too-demanding Miss Fitt with a piercing glance too, but much of the strength of the production comes from her superlative vocal work. Gambon is a late arrival to the show, but his gravelly irascibility has an immediate impact and his presence is a powerful counterpart to Atkins, at once adding a note of support yet also intensifying the sense of fragility.
For all the incongruities that the presentation exposes – Atkins is hardly the figure described by the others for example, and do the scripts really add anything? – the ability to have this radio drama enhanced by the small touches the company can add into their performances more than makes up for it, not least in watching their own reactions whilst watching their colleagues. All That Fall is undoubtedly a fascinating experience and one which proves beguiling in its intimacy, witnessing such talent as Atkins and Gambon at such close quarters has to be one of the greatest theatrical luxuries of the year.