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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Winterling
Royal Court Theatre        Spring 2006

Jez Butterworth's new play is an exercise in misdirection and confounding of audience expectations, the sort of thing that sets you up to expect one thing and then hits you with another.

It makes you laugh just when you thought things were most dramatic and shakes you with a dramatic twist just as you're laughing.

If the roller coaster doesn't actually take you anywhere, the ride is certainly a lot of fun while it lasts.

The play opens with a London gangster type incongruously living in an out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere farmhouse, to which he has summoned a couple of his underlings. We gather that he has been in hiding for some reason, and now wants them to arrange his return to action.

And we are wrong. Once the situation and the relationships have been established, a flashback shows us that we've completely misinterpreted everything. And when this new knowledge allows us to return to the present with a clearer sense of what will happen next, we're proven wrong again.

Every dark turn in the plot suddenly opens a door into farce, every suggestion of a happy ending turns shockingly dark.

Everything that does happen is totally logical, and it is only the playwright's misdirection - itself a reflection of the various characters' needs to project false fronts - that has led us down the various garden paths.

And realising how and why we were tricked, and how the tricks themselves are part of the truth, is much of the play's fun.

Other sources of humour include the sub-Pinter dialogue the hardmen employ as means of jockeying for dominance, as if they had just come from a performance of The Birthday Party.

Indeed, one of the first surprises comes as a young apprentice hoodlum, far from being intimidated by the subtext of menace beneath his superiors' verbal one-upsmanship, proves as adept at the game as they.

Ian Rickson directs with the confidence and authority of a Tarantino equally at home with menace, black comedy, farce and psychological horror.

Robert Glenister navigates the reversals and surprise revelations about the central character, making him equally real in both strength and weakness.

Jerome Flynn brings quiet menace to an old friend who may be both more and less than that, and Daniel Mays particularly scores as the wide boy who first surprises others by being smarter than he looks, only to then forcefully be put back in his place.

Roger Lloyd Pack as a neighbour and Sally Hawkins as a homeless girl both effectively deal with the challenge of being introduced as comic relief and then proving to be deeper and darker.

Think film noir. Think Agatha Christie meets Tarantino, with no actual blood. It's that kind of confound-your-expectations game, and it's fun.


Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Winterling - Royal Court Theatre 2006

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