Barry McGovern and Michael James Ford in Stumped. Image by Colm Maher
The legendary Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, famously said, "football isn’t a matter of life and death…it’s much, much more important than that.” In his gentle comedy, Stumped (alternately titled Yes…no…wait…), Shomit Dutta views cricket in much the same fashion. Proposing an imaginary meeting between Samual Beckett and Harold Pinter taking place during a cricket match in the Cotswolds in the 1960s. Both men, avid cricketers in real life, are waiting, a la Godot, for their turn to bat. Later they wait for a lift home from the elusive Doggo. With respectful disdain they discuss literature, padding, life and death, and the everything or nothing that lies beyond. If the name Doggo sets alarm bells screaming, compounded by the spate of lamentable Godot inspired re-imaginings inflicted on audiences this year; fear not. Stumped is a cut above the rest, with two excellent performances elevating what might have been a mild curiosity into something to be genuinely curious about.
Like grumpy old men, the lovingly curmudgeonly odd couple engage in a battle of oneupmanship. Steeped less in vindictive repartee so much as studied reflections. A gentle thrust and parry of verbal swords, like slow motion table tennis, sees Beckett winning on points. Cricket-speak, illuminating to the initiated, can prove a dull interlude for the neutral; Beckett’s score keeping sounding like Oppenheimer’s calculations. Talk of innings, overs, wickets, boundaries as obscure as zen koans. Apt though, given that cricket, like Beckett and Pinter, can be meditatively slow with lots of time for reflection on the absurdity of life. Of which there is much on display. Director Bairbre Ní Chaoimh matching pace to that of a cricket match. Brief, ruminating gaps breathing between lines built around a Godot like structure. The whole a sedative for the soul for those who love cricket, Beckett and Pinter. A sedative for those who don’t.
Michael James Ford and Barry McGovern in Stumped. Image by Colm Maher
Cleverly positioned, Martin Cahill’s set employs delicately dated details to magnify the space and replicate the exterior of a cricket pavilion. Fading paint and worn scoreboard suggesting age and an earlier time. Details Therèse McKeone’s costumes endorse. The comparative youthfulness of the younger Pinter conveyed via a Billy Bunter styled cricket cap; Pinter looking positively school-boyish at times. Meanwhile, Colm Maher’s lights and shadows do a remarkable amount of suspenseful heavy lifting. But two delightful performances, avoiding mere impersonation, reveal hidden depths to both writers and their works. Michael James Ford’s resonant Pinter a rebellious raconteur showing remarkable alacrity. Ford revealing a captivating tenderness behind the acerbic playwright's public persona. Barry McGovern, unquestionably one of the great Beckett interpreters, sends a shudder down the spine at how much he’s coming to resemble the superstitious, erudite wit, commanding the stage with a headmasterly authority.
Offering insights into two remarkable writers, Stumped often focuses on Beckett at the expense of Pinter. Indeed, the Great War poet, Edward Thomas, getting a significant amount of air time, might have left the real Pinter feeling doubly aggrieved. Even so, two touching and thought provoking performances place both writers on an equal footing. Like cricket, Stumped is as quaint and charming as English afternoon tea. A little eccentric, a little quirky, full of warm and mild amusement, Stumped serves up moments of delight. Like when the ball soars into the crowd following that satifiying twack of the bat.
Stumped by Shomit Dutta, presented by Bewley’s Café Theatre, runs at Bewley’s Café Theatre until August 19.
For more information visit Bewley’s Café Theatre