Lunch & The Bow of Ulysses – Review

Shaun Dooley & Emily Bruni in Lunch. Images Marc Brenner.
Shaun Dooley & Emily Bruni in Lunch. Images Marc Brenner.

Steven Berkoff doesn’t do things by half measures. When Tom meets Mary on a seaside pier, in his one-act Lunch, it’s cataclysmic. The earth moves – literally for Tom. He is dumb struck, sweating, a million and one emotions surging through his brain as his body goes into paroxysms of desire, wanting and lust.

The rather frumpy Mary isn’t much better. She’s sitting on a bench, staring into space and ruminating on a cold chip, when he walks by. No, when he stops. When he is physically incapable of passing her without making contact.

Is he looking at me? He can’t be? He is. Whoa…

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Forget the ham sandwiches and a flask of tepid tea, Berkoff’s Lunch is a sumptuous banquet of rich, erotic, orgasmic, furious declarations that comprise the first course in a 20 year relationship.

It has been coupled, for a run at London’s Trafalgar Studios, with The Bow of Ulysses, his follow-up which, inevitably, picks over the cold scraps left on the plates of a couple now replete.

It’s impossible to analyse both plays with any clear logic. Director Nigel Harman has set the dramas on a seaside bench. A barrel organ is playing jaunty music in the background and seagulls screech overhead.

But if you or I walked by as Tom and Mary’s initial meeting takes place – particularly Shaun Dooley’s astonishing reaction at being hit by this thunderbolt of attraction – well, our first instinct would be to call the police…. or the men in white coats.

And later, when they, erm, seal the deal with a quick bit of how’s-your-father – in the middle of the day – on a pier – in front of Punch, Judy and probably a passing crowd of day-trippers – well.. what would the vicar say?

Much later we return to the same bench for The Bow of Ulysses, written by Berkoff 20 years after the first play, for what is probably the couple’s last encounter.

Twenty years on they’re jaded, perhaps Berkoff is writing from the heart. Either way it’s realistically depressing. A marriage played out.

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They have the sort of very personal, explicit, conversation that you or I would only think of conducting in the privacy of our own homes. Yet, here they are, back at the seaside.

I couldn’t help wondering if they’d gone there specifically for this excruciating postscript to their relationship or whether it just spontaneously happened.

Tom, with verbal diarrhoea, bemoans a life wasted, accusing the sullen, taciturn Mary (a dressed down Emily Bruni), of sucking him dry.

“I’ve been a prize mug,” he admits. She, for her part, has also had enough. “I’ve suffered your stinking bloated corpse next to me all these years,” she says.

Berkoff’s language in Lunch is fierce, funny, intense and visceral. Dooley goes into overdrive, no doubt with the blessing of his director Harman, spitting out his lines, his face contorted and sweat pouring from every pore in his body. The man’s on fire.

Tom, it turns out, is an ad salesman who likes to relieve the stress of his job by popping down to the sea for an hour’s R & R. Mary, whose life seems as vacuous as Tom’s endeavours, seems shut down. She’s shocked by Tom’s overreaction but, piqued by his behaviour, allows him free reign to continue.

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And continue he does. At one point he’s on his knees in homage, his hands trembling as they cradle her ankles and then move so seductively up her legs that it’s positively indecent.

The pair of them blurt out half sentences or just single words while, like speech bubbles above their heads, their thoughts are racing in entire paragraphs.

The Bow of Ulysses is less satisfactory in that the fire has gone out of their relationship and Berkoff’s language is less florid. Tom drones on, enjoying the sound of his own voice. Is she even listening?

Bruni’s bored face gives little away. Her eyes are dead. When she finally answers Tom’s accusations it is to shoot some of her own. What started off as a very physical relationship has finally petered out until there’s no spark, not even a dying ember.

In the end we don’t know whether the pair, exhausted by hurling brickbats, retire for a chip supper or go their separate ways. It doesn’t really matter. We’re gorged on a Lunch of infinite delectation and sated by the power of a playwright’s language.

Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses runs in Trafalgar Studios 2 until October 31.