New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until Saturday 22 February

Entering the auditorium at The New Vic for a revival of Jim Cartwright’s play Two is an exceptionally welcoming experience. From his circular bar in the centre of the circular stage our host banters cheerfully with his gathering audience and draws real beer for them to sample. But the masterly stage setting also has a hint of the coliseum to it: no sooner has the landlady joined her husband than a sort of gladiatorial combat is engaged.

Two is immensely good humoured and often very funny, but it is a play about numerous couples and we see them also as fractious, bullying, melancholy and much else besides.  

Samantha Robinson as Landlady All photos by Mark Douet

The space around the bar in this northern working-class pub is populated with a series of drinkers, all played in turn by the two actors. They are voluble in their exchanges and their monologues and there is an intensity of direct communication that grabs attention. Behind the bar, in contrast, the two owners of the pub who are facilitating the emotional noise around them are locked in silence. They snipe at each other constantly, but will not talk of what really matters.

This silence at the core adds an unnerving poignancy to the busy social scene, underlying the action of the whole play and leading to a dénouement for the central couple that is powerfully moving.

Director Ruth Carney and designer Lis Evans have wrought a kind of theatrical magic out of their imagined pub. But it is the two actors, Jimmy Fairhurst and Samantha Robinson, who must pull off the tricks to make it work – and they do so with a winning combination of sensitivity and flair.

Fairhurst’s fun with the character Moth, a penniless scrounger with outrageous chat-up lines (“Did you smile just now or did someone turn the lights on?”) and even more outrageous dance moves, is laugh-out loud funny. His turn as an elderly man whose ‘silence’ signifies communion with his dead wife is profoundly eloquent. Robinson performs a belting version of Holding out for a Hero while her wimpy man struggles to get to the bar. She’s in more ambivalent mode as the ‘third woman’ hoping to confront her lover and his wife.

Jimmy Fairhurst and Samantha Robinson

There are surprisingly dark tones too. As controlling man and his suppressed partner, Fairhurst and Robinson create in just a matter of minutes a scenario of abuse so convincing it sends a shudder up the spine.

The characters come and go with the deftest of costume changes, always visible and sometimes in stylised motions, allowing both actors and audience a subtle change of gear.

Jimmy Fairhurst as Moth and Samantha Robinson as Maudie

And all the time, it seems, our landlord and landlady are oiling the wheels – collecting the empties, nipping down to the cellar to change the barrels, caressing the counter-top with a tee-towel, cracking the same old joke. While their inner silence grows unbearably.

For many theatre-lovers, the auditorium and the bar are complementary inspirations. It has never been more literally true than in this superb production.