Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

under lintel

Jon Elves as the Dutch librarian in search of answers

Underneath The Lintel

An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences

Criterion Theatre, Coventry


The lights have gone up at the Criterion, after far too long off. And this tour-de-force lit up everyone’s evening. How? It was all down to one, or rather two, men, actor and director.

Underneath the Lintel, which received a staggering number of performances right across East and West Coast United States in the first year following its appearance in 2001, supplemented here in Coventry by a delicate negotiation of rights, is an intriguing, at times puzzling, always involving, and endlessly fascinating, one man show, with a bizarre story, a gradually unfolding mystery, and a great deal of animated activity.

Directed by Criterion regular Richard Warren, and starring – that is certainly the word - Jon Elves (who is also Chairman of the theatre’s trustees, and has been with the company for three decades - soon taking off with Toad in The Wind in the Willows), this absorbing stagework dwells on the memories – or perhaps imaginings? – eagerly shared by this one bookish fellow, whose peculiar obsession runs throughout the play, but also provides the takeoff point for much else.

It was American playwright Glen Berger, seemingly currently in his forties, and with more than a dozen plays to his credit (at least two of them Musicals), who conceived this phenomenal bestseller just after the Millennium. It could as easily have been called The Philosopher, so broad are the (only) character’s reflections and enthusiasms, except that the Library which he tends, with one of its long-missing but now mysteriously recovered contents, is the crucial launchpad for his compulsive pursuit of the identity of the elusive borrower who has now – 113 years later (1986, so in the 1870s) – anonymously returned overnight the book now in his hand.


The Actors' Gang in Los Angeles which premiered the play in May 2001, starring Brian Finney

The furnishing is specified as being simple, sparse even, and Props and Set designers Bill Young and Sally Patalong get this somehow perfectly right and apt. We do not need thousands of books to make a rather twee, overloaded set, A lecture room table, of an utterly neutral kind, with a suitcase on it, suffices for this eccentric’s antics – for that is what they are – artfully engineered by Warren and Elves so that somehow the monologue is riddled with action, sometimes mesmerising, always beguiling. We are drawn into this character’s life and preoccupations inexorably. They invite not just our attention, but our active involvement.

Why The Lintel? It is outside the entrance to the Jerusalem home of a figure who curiously became known in folklore, paradoxically, as the homeless ‘Wandering Jew’. This house and lintel are where Jesus suffered one of his falls on the way to Calvary and the Crucifixion, and is mocked by a sneering, faithless man. And the arcane figure? Perhaps stranger than ever, as it emerges by the play’s end and the conclusion of the Librarian’s dogged investigation, it proves that he is, or was, none other than this same ill-fated Ahasuerus, doomed to perambulate, or soar, around an unforgiving planet till the Second Coming.  

That Elves’ character is in reality Jewish seems pretty likely from the start. The way Pam Coleman and Anne-marie (sic) Greene dress the Librarian – essentially browns, with a few additions – somehow suggests it: one half expects him to don scarf and hold out a copy of the Talmud. The fact that he is Dutch might be deemed to make it more likely. Yet despite all, this is not expressly a Jewish figure (though that is the way Berger, one takes it Jewish himself, might initially have conceived, then modified it); but somehow more universal than that. Rather, a Gentile amateur tracker who by coincidence happens to inhabit, or rather light upon, a deepest folk memory (like the Golem, perhaps), of Christian rather than Jewish origin, as is unexpectedly revealed at the close.

The pursuit begins. The nameless protagonist, who rather overzealously has booked a theatre to give a talk about his strange findings, opens his suitcase and probes for the first of his "scraps": shreds of evidence, objets trouvés, each neatly tagged by him and perhaps providing a clue to the identity of the secretive, long past borrower.

Richard Schiff

Richard Schiff, best known for playing Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, who played the librarian on its London premiere in 2007

The book is a Baedeker travel guide borrowed from a library in the small, quiet, sheltered Dutch town where our Librarian still works, but has taken leave from. Inside the book, he first finds a 73-year-old dry-cleaning ticket from a London laundry shop – dating, that is, from 1913. Intrigued, freed by a lack of success in love, now on a solitary trail, he makes for London. The laundry is still up and running, and with the ticket, he redeems a pair of trousers that has not been cleaned because of its poor condition.

What are we to make of all this? Elves’ success in making his character one of us, and of drawing us in, is at the heart of this quite brilliant performance. In its 90 minutes he has as many lines as Prospero or Lear, but he is so abreast of and at ease with them there is not a faltering moment; he lulls us, energises, entertains and amuses us by turns. Above all, we have to take him seriously, as he stresses.

We follow him around as his mood flits and fleets from one emotion to the next. Puzzlement, fascination, determination, disturbedness, insistence, ingenuity; constantly painstaking and methodical. Occasionally (actually quite often) dotty or quirky, which generates the marvellous comedy and bizarreness Elves brings to his frankly fabulous performance. He is a fretful, self-deprecating, usually buoyant if intermittently troubled, yet deeply humane soul, but his affability engenders scarcely any distaste or bitterness or fury (the occasional indignant excitement). And quite free of Jewish or Christian guilt. He is too busy, busy, busy for that.

He is excited and galvanised, one by one, by his lonely triumphs (as his sifting progresses), differently managed each time - as so much was in this gripping show - by not so much facial (though the widening eyes were crucial) as bodily gestures, a joy and treat to watch, as he comes across ‘clues’ – a bit of railway ticket, some snippet of bric-a-brac, which ushers him on in search for the baffling, cryptic truth. Who is the borrower? Why is the book now returned? Above all, what does this whole saga, this extraordinary historic jape, MEAN?

The Librarian’s always intriguing moves, largely around the desk or table, usually with different speed or gait, or hurtling exuberantly, spasmodically, absentmindedly, often pottily, to front stage, are jerky, here and there frenetic, yet every one somehow underlines the point being made. So carefully plotted are they, it seems clear Warren and Elves have worked endlessly on this script, prising open and peering into every nook and cranny, each nugget of detail, so as to leave no stone unturned, no lintel unaddressed. This is a search without remission, a tenacious, unflagging pursuit from whose very obduracy springs the humour and the infinitely light, rapier-like touch which informs and permeates both this quite breathtaking performance and Berger’s rich, multi-layered text itself.

T ryder as librarian

T Ryder Smith as the Librarian when it opened off Broadway at the Soho Playhouse in 2001


Several afterthoughts or related thoughts. The Criterion (a late 19th century chapel turned theatre in 1960, is long sponsored by Penmans solicitors, once haunt of Coventry’s sympathetic senior Labour MP Bill Wilson; and has as its President Editor, Journalist – and Actor - Keith Railton, with over 80 roles to his credit, many leading and staggering: George III, Salieri in Amadeus, C S Lewis in Shadowlands, Prospero, Fagin, John Aubrey in the Patrick Garland/Roy Dotrice saucy monologue Brief Lives, Parris in the Crucible, Toad, and early on Buckingham in Richard III - as well as half a dozen-plus as Director. Crucible stagings have on occasion flagged, but now and maybe often as an amateur company that can raise itself to professional standards it is right up there with the best.

This is not the only (pre-plague) major success of late. Recent Criterion productions have included Queers – an Alan Bennett like series of eight soliloquies celebrating (and exploring) the 50th anniversary of the Harold Wilson/Roy Jenkins’ (post- 1533 and 1861-85, and finally post-Wolfenden) Sexual Offences Act 1967 (the BBC’s “Gay Britannia” series, 2017), with the wonderfully poignant (then) 20 year old Fionn (sic) Whitehead (Dunkirk), the brilliant Ben Whishaw (as a First World War veteran), and Russell Tovey; as well as Glorious – the whimsical saga of  the celebrated (and disastrous) famously decrepit would-be soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, so marvellously (and accurately/inaccurately) enacted at the Birmingham Rep and in London’s West End by Maureen Lipman; actor David Haig’s third stage play, Pressure (after his My Boy Jack, featuring Daniel Radcliffe in his maturity); the markedly sinister The Pillowman (Martin McDonagh); a modern dress Much Ado About Nothing (with Jon Elves as Benedick); and the nuclear-focused The Children, by Lucy Kirkwood, currently being staged at the Loft, in Leamington.   

This apparently is Richard Warren’s 18th staged production for the Criterion, in which his mother Jean played a leading role as actress, director and coordinator, for many years. He began, their amazing website and Archive tell me, playing bit roles and much involved in set building; then as designer of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and three years later (1985) Arthur Miller’s grimly ironic All My Sons. Amid one or two gaps even choreographing (co-directing) Henry V. And following (e.g.) Oliver Twist and Tom’s Midnight Garden 15 or 16 years ago, and others as long as three decades back, since 1914 especially Warren has directed a play, and once two, for them every (functioning) year.

So, here with Underneath the Lintel was a pairing of truly outstanding talents, both of whom – like Jeremy Heynes and others at the Loft – could easily have made their mark on the professional stage. One was left aghast by this production: the range, the variety, the astonishing deep insights, the perceptiveness of how best to bring it off. At every juncture we were mesmerised, such was the consistent quality of this astounding five-star show. It was an education. I’m so glad I took myself there. I certainly wouldn’t have missed it.    

Roderic Dunnett

Under the Lintel will be performed again online on 11-09-21 

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