Southwark Playhouse, London – until 21 May 2022
Reviewed by Alun Hood
The title might be a nod to Pirandello, but there is more of a sense of Beckettian gloom to this unusual, beautifully crafted piece of theatre. Five Characters In Search Of A Good Night’s Sleep tells you pretty much what you’re going to get as a quintet of older people mull over their lives while courting elusive sleep in a series of monologues ranging from the mundane to the deeply moving.
Created by Sonja Linden and director Mike Alfreds in conjunction with a team of actors (two of whom are in the present cast), the show is essentially plotless, concentrating instead on providing snapshots of very different lives, the only common factors being that none of these people are in the first flush of youth, and they’re all in the grip of serious regret. If the length -an hour and three quarters with no interval- feels punishing given the lack of interaction between the actors, the storytelling is undeniably compelling, and the performances are top notch.
It’s a pleasure to see veteran actors of the calibre of Sally Knyvette, Andrew Hawkins and Vincenzo Nicoli working at close quarters, and it is arguably most fascinating watching them fully inhabiting their characters in the moments when they’re not actually speaking. Gary Lilburn’s Irish Hugo, garrulously descending into macular degeneration, is terrific, so vivid and natural that one almost forgets he’s even acting, and is probably the most satisfyingly well crafted creation. Geraldine Alexander breaks the heart as a woman whose grip on a life devoted to being her elderly mother’s carer is slipping.
It’s not exactly feel good entertainment but it’s sweet and sad, and there is some wry humour. For a piece where each character is preoccupied with getting off to sleep, Mike Alfred’s staging moves at an excellent pace, as the monologues bleed into each other, and character’s thoughts are left hanging in the air, like melancholic non sequiturs. It’s tempting to think that the whole thing might work just as well on the radio as on a stage but then one would miss out on Neill Brinkworth’s subtle and rather marvellous lighting design which subtly suggests the transition from the middle of the night to the waking dawn as the piece progresses.
It’s really more an anthology than a conventional play, and the lack of action may prove frustrating for some, but it’s exquisitely done and the performances make it absolutely worth seeing.