Richard Bean – he of 'One Man, Two Guvnors' and 'Great Britain' fame – returns to more intimate fare with this short two-hander that started life at Hampstead’s Downstairs studio theatre last year.
It’s intimate in every sense; the action takes place entirely on and around a bed belonging to ‘Stephanie’, a First World War widow who has paid ‘Dennis’ to inseminate her. This is the 1920s, and such services are in high demand due to the shortage of men. Dennis, working for a private clinic run by the matronly Dr Trollope (no kissing, she insists), has already fathered over 200 children.
But far from being a glorified rent boy, Dennis is the public school educated air to a Barbados sugar fortune and sees his new-found service as a Freudian way of repairing the guilt he feels at having missed the war. It’s an intriguing idea and Ben Lloyd-Hughes effectively captures the inner conflict of this buttoned-up man for whom undoing them has become a personal crusade.
Opposite him Claire Lams gives a compelling portrayal of the funny and forthright Stephanie. She’s a woman out of time; a free-spirited, potty-mouthed lorry driver. It’s easy to see the attraction for Dennis - she says the unsayable and delights in teasing him. 'Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever had sex?', she asks. 'Stoke Newington', he replies.
But underpinning their flirtatious banter is the brutality of conflict, and Bean has found a novel way to evoke the scale of the horrors. Dennis speaks of the injured husbands who often insist on meeting him before ‘the act’. Some are shell-shocked, others wounded in unthinkable ways. The premise, which at first seems absurd, grows all-too believable as things progress.
This is a well-crafted chamber piece given a straightforward yet tender staging by Anna Ledwich. It won’t win any prizes for innovation but as a study of human fragility it’s quietly heartbreaking.