Iain Armstrong as Duke Williams makes a discovery with Clement his Butler played by Mick Jasper looking on. Pictures: Alan Fletcher
The Underground Man
Coventry Belgrade, B2
This touring play, based on the Booker shortlisted novel by Mike Jackson, originally cast in diary form, but skilfully reworked for the stage by Nick Wood, is sharp, witty, clever and eccentric by turns.
It is not about the man who designed the London Underground map, or the chap who constructed the capital’s deepest tube tunnel, the Northern Line.
Based on the real life of William Cavendish Scott-Bentinck, Fifth Duke of Portland (1800-1879), who resided at Welbeck Abbey in Notts, the play is, according to the Nottingham Playhouse - where public fascination led to the addition of several extra performances - ‘a delectable blend of fact and fiction…often curious and frequently hilarious’.
The book, reported The Times, is an example of ‘tragi-comic fiction with the most endearingly sympathetic of anti-heroes.’
Northerly theatre critics had their own take: ‘A quietly strange, original and riveting piece of theatre.’ . . . ‘A Must See’ . . . ‘imaginitive and pacey’. . . ‘a meditation on age, life, love and loneliness’ and ‘Tour de Force performances’. It entails, someone suggests, ‘a journey with a Gothic twist’.
The Belgrade’s B2 is the final stop on its 2016-2017 tour. The play is performed by just two actors, Iain Armstrong as the patently potty yet sometimes unnervingly shrewd and sane Duke William, and Mick Jasper as his butler, Clement, but also adding a succession of incidental roles played by the latter.
Musician Nigel Waterhouse, complete with just an accordion, is onstage throughout. His playing responds empathetically to the action, supplying a beneficial, sensitive and sympathetic score. Capable of catching wide shifts in mood, he is especially gifted at furnishing quiet, haunting chords and a sense of mystery which never intrudes on, but frequently captures, mimics and underlines the prevailing mood to perfection.
If there is a criticism of Wood’s thoroughly proficient adaptation, it is perhaps that so little of the action takes place underground. When it does, and Will Welch’s lighting generates atmosphere with the same ease that he lights all the rest of the play, it is haunting and absorbing. The Duke’s encounter with his shy, modest tunnelling overseer is one of the most touching exchanges in the script.
The bulk of the action takes place in the Duke’s bedroom, or else drawing room: the set, by Harriet Clarke, Nottingham Playhouse and Trent University Prize winner 2016, and here excelling in her first professional engagement, is attractive yet minimal, highly appropriate for an aristocrat who famously removed almost all furniture and décor from his rooms – but just enough to conjure up period, and featuring a bed-cum-writing desk, the odd chair, table and cabinet, a symbolic lantern, a monkey, a set of organ pipes, a hatstand, and – most important of all – a massive wooden wheel with cogs, ostensibly driven by a tiny one inside, which represents equally well the cutting gear for tunnelling and the machinery for effecting descent: it is ‘via’ this that the Duke and his vicar make the downward journey into darkness.
Iain Armstrong as the Duke in stovepipe hat and composer Nigel Waterhouse as the ever-attentive musician
Her costumes are good too: the Duke’s initial attire, and subsequent clothing, a bit like the sort of thing Phileas Fogg might have donned; the quick changes effected for butler, vicar, etc. likewise minimal: just as much as was needed, and practicable in the time available.
The staging by director Andrew Breakwell – Associate Artist at the Nottingham Playhouse - is simple and effective. Most of the time, both characters are onstage, with musician in attendance. The centrally placed bed/bureau gives them something to circle around, so the production never gets static or boring. The Butler, rather than exiting offstage, conducts his changes – hat, coat, dog-collar, colourful shawl - at stage left. Thus the play has a seamlessness, and runs smoothly and efficiently from start to finish.
Iain Armstrong and Mick Jasper joined together to found ajtc Theatre Company, the ‘aj’ indicating presumably their two names. They are clearly immensely familiar with working together; it certainly shows here. Their intimate company has presented eight productions before this one, and the pair also seemingly performed together in Pinter’s The Caretaker at the Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich – Jasper’s old haunt – which must have been fun, and in iShandy, a new play by Richard Hurford based on Laurence Sterne’s innovative 18th century novel Tristram Shandy, at York’s Theatre Royal.
Armstrong creates an irritable, crotchety yet likeable figure of the ageing Duke, Lord William - ‘a life of fascination, obsession and deep scientific curiosity’ - around whom the action focuses. Fond of the fruit (‘orange pippins’) he grows in his vast kitchen garden, he is also much concerned with his health, on which Clement the Butler expends sympathy and assistance.
While the locking of his back, so that he has to be helped up, seems genuine, several of his ailments look like hypochondria: his neck, his stomach and bowel, a touch of rheumatism, as well as his head – an addled pate. With an aching skull, he acquires an unnerving, morbid interest in the art of ‘trepanning’. Conversely, he insists on putting ‘gusto’ into his singing. He describes with intensity and detail the occasion when he set his hair alight with an ill-placed candle.
A series of notes on his life from Nottingham University, where many of his papers and letters are housed, offers this intriguing conspectus of his Lordship: A nephew of the Foreign Secretary (and briefly Prime Minister) George Canning, he was nearly drawn into politics, but declined. Rather, he was interested in all aspects of the running of his estates - the planting of trees, the feeding of deer, the emptying and cleaning of the lake, and so on. He regularly inspected the stables and watched young horses being broken. He was also known to be a considerate employer, who cared for his workers, being ‘on very good terms’ with them and gaining the nickname ‘the workman’s friend.’.
It went further. He provided his employees with umbrellas and donkeys to enable them to get to and from work without fatigue, and when roller skating first became popular he had a rink installed near the lake for the benefit of the staff and encouraged them to make good use of it. He encouraged them to row on the lake and would sometimes coach them in oarsmanship.’ In Wood’s play we see the momentary mental ‘absences’ to which he was prone, and which contributed to the perception of him as an eccentric. He shows limited interest in ‘a woolly rhino bone’ which is the vicar’s pride and joy. But he shows genuine grief over the death of two of his retainers, Mr. and Mrs. Snow.
The Butler, played by Mick Jasper, weighs up the situation
It is Jasper’s elaborate brief of changing characters which arguably gives this play its special frisson. He appears with equal ease as the Butler who is principal daily companion to the famously reclusive Portland (although the latter was not averse to intimate relationships, as well as keen earlier on riding, hunting, shooting, travel and musical performances, especially opera) Portland’s principal companion; and with various well-observed northern accents as the tunnel overseer; as Mr.Grimshaw the frantic horse-carriage driver; as the fidgety and ingratiating Revd. Mellor, the parson; as a healer, a moving figure ‘blind from birth’; plus a pair of sisters able to alleviate head pain, and so on.
His extraordinary pirouetting as the last is one of the miraculously funny sequences in this play, which curiously and undeservedly drew only periodic laughs from an attentive but rather reticent Coventry audience.
Each actor has a main soliloquy or soliloquies, and it is in these always affecting set-pieces that we see the skill of both performers in conjuring with and bewitching an audience.
Portland is proud of his tunnels: the principal one ‘wide enough for two carriages to pass’, and ‘each with its own gatehouse’: an undertaking that took ‘5 years, employing 200 men at a shilling a day’. Bizarrely, we are told, his servants used to bring him his food on heated trucks running on rails through the underground tunnels. At one point he and the vicar appear to have reached Creswell Crags, some two to three miles from Welbeck. The way Jasper and the musician unite to produce an effect of underground trotting, then galloping, is hilarious.
A clue to its expanse: ‘The complex of underground rooms and tunnels under the estate totalled some 15 miles, connecting various underground chambers and above-ground buildings’. One main tunnel ‘had domed skylights visible on the surface and lit at night by gaslight’.
All the underground rooms were apparently painted pink. They included a great hall (originally planned as a chapel), used as a picture gallery and occasionally a ballroom, with a hydraulic lift that could carry 20 guests at a time; yet the duke never organised any dances there. There was a long library, an observatory with a large glass roof, and a vast billiard room.
The ailing Duke as the Butler attempts to relieve his agues
At times, this two-man script, with two old geezers engaged in concurring or disputing (like Tom Courtenay’s infuriated Dresser, Clement has no hesitation in speaking his mind), feels a bit like Waiting for Godot. It’s full of sometimes lively, often faltering two-way exchanges. Indeed some of the best moments are when a pregnant silence descends, or where Jasper speaks deliberately slowly, whether to make his point, or else with commendable caution or world-weary sufferance.
All the time, Waterhouse’s accordion is nudging or egging the play on, seeming to make statements or pose like a character in its own right, and especially fine where he produces mysterious susurrations, in a high or low register; or takes some basic, reiterated chordings and unexpectedly descants or decorates them, to beguiling effect
He shows how the accordion can be a classical instrument, endlessly illustrative and evocative, rich in variety and profoundly expressive in utterance. Frequently the effect is ethereal (for instance, a passing mystical use of the whole tone scale). More often than not, he adds an acute feeling of pathos to support the action. And at one point, as the pair board a train, he produces weird and wonderful effects from a whistle and hand struck accordion to suggest the engine heaving into action.
Light-hearted in content, this was nonetheless serious drama, and made for a compelling evening in the theatre. There is an element of unexpected tragedy at the end. It coincides with William’s visit (in Edinburgh, at the end of the train ride) to another of Jasper’s characters, the rather grand, smug, self-opinionated Professor Bannister.
The Duke’s wits seem to be eluding him – not least when (clad in an ivy garland to represent undergrowth) he goes crawling through the flora outside on a strange mission of searching. Is he trying ‘to unearth the secrets of his memory’?
We learn, along the way, about ‘Our beloved son, born 12 March 1828, died 1832’ (it is thought he had at least two illegitimate sons and a daughter). He alludes to him and the dead child being born ‘on the same day’, although his birthday was actually17th September. And poignancy comes from his memory of the boy drowned in front of his eyes. Here above all, we find the central character receding into childhood. Perhaps, we feel, that is what he was doing all through the play.