AS theatres reopen their doors whilst still working under a variety of lockdown-lite restrictions, it’s a balancing act between restoring an air of normality whilst maintaining the safety of cast and crew and making audiences feel confident. Whilst this can be frustrating for writers, producers and performers, it can also be an opportunity to explore the concept of less being more.
Gerry Linford’s new bittersweet situation comedy, Ellen & Rigby, takes the Royal Court’s tried and tested formula of risqué humour with a local flavour, and condenses it into a rich two-hander for perennial favourites Lindzi Germain and Andrew Schofield.
Ellen is a died-in-the-wool optimist with a zest for life, but she’s unlucky in love and has some deeper emotional scars too, that she tries to forget by volunteering at her local vaccination centre. At least it serves to feed her addiction for being around people. Joe Rigby is the chalk to her cheese. A former promising wannabe pop star, who missed all his best opportunities out of loyalty to his mates, and now he’s turned his back on the world and spends his days surrounded by houseplants, with his nose in his collection of comics.
Rigby walks into Ellen’s clinic one stormy day for his first shot of Astra Zeneca, and the lightning flashes outside make him more than usually nervous of the needle. As she helps him back to his house, conveniently opposite her own, she sees the stars aligning and comes up with a desperate plan to fill the void in her love life. 12 weeks living with Ellen wasn’t Rigby’s first choice of how to spend the time before his second vaccine dose, but choice doesn’t seem to be on the menu, and this odd couple hunker down for the long lockdown haul together. Will cupid’s arrow find its target, or will this turn into a remake of Misery?
Presented with a cast of just two players to work with, Linford has employed a cunning narrative device. Much as Shirley Valentine had her wall, Linford gives Rigby his beloved houseplant collection to talk to, while Ellen unburdens her hopes and fears to George Clooney – or, at least, a lifesize cardboard cutout of him inside a cupboard door. This gives both characters unlimited opportunity to soliloquise, and often to hilarious effect.
One area where the Court really haven’t scaled down at all on this production is stage design. Alfie Heywood has created two huge naturalistic sets for the clinic and Rigby’s house, and set decoration is wonderfully detailed. Meanwhile, a soundtrack made up of mostly ‘80s music immerses us in the world of the pair’s heyday. There are also several opportunities for both actors to show off their vocal prowess, and for Schofield to dust down his guitars.
There is a good reason why this pair of performers is so beloved of audiences at the Royal Court, and why they both get such a rousing ovation when they first appear onstage. There is a great chemistry between them, and they are both masters of comedy. Germain has boundless energy and delivers her lines like a truck delivering coal – there is no stopping the flow of words. Schofield, meanwhile, is the perfect foil to this with his brilliant physical performance. He can use anything from the tiniest glance to his entire body to reduce an audience to laughter.
Linford has shown us before how he has the ability to mix pathos with his comedy and he manages to find a nice balance here, getting in some strong emotional messages amidst the laughter. Stephen Fletcher returns to the director’s chair, and has tightly honed the timing and emotional temperature so that the piece keeps smiling whilst never losing sight of the serious aspects of its story.
Ellen & Rigby is a play about all the lonely people for whom lockdown has presented a mixture of welcome contemplation and sadness and loss. It is also a breath of fresh air that lets us laugh about the events of the past year or so and share again in the brand of comedy that’s unique to the Royal Court.
Ellen & Rigby plays at the Royal Court until 31st July, with the usual dining and non-dining tickets available in a socially distanced setting at 50% capacity.
Star Rating: 4 Stars
Review by Nigel Smith