WHAT a treat it is to visit The Calder Bookshop & Theatre in London’s Waterloo – right next door to the magnificent Spanish tapas bar Meson Don Felipe (its sardines and Patatas Bravas are to die for). It’s a throwback in time. Almost Dickensian.
Arrive early for the night’s performance and you will be drawn to the thousands of books (primarily plays) that line the shop’s walls and fill every available shelf. Pinter, Beckett et al. They’re difficult to resist – I ended up buying a 50th anniversary edition of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane.
If you’re lucky, the resident cat will be feigning sleep on the main desk – secretly pining for a stroke or three – although as soon as the night’s play begins, it starts meowing outside the theatre door, annoyed at no longer being the centre of attention.
All rather quaint. All rather worth a visit. Even the toilet downstairs is worth a trek to – with a warning sign that anything other than toilet paper flushed down the single loo will cause flooding and ‘we will all die!’ Really.
The theatre, as compact as you will find anywhere in the country, has 32 seats. The performers are quite literally in your face.
As for the play, The Critic, billed as a ‘black comedy’ and written by John Hill, is essentially a story about two pretty screwed up individuals.
In one corner is Hugh (Gary Heron), a rather pompous and nasty theatre critic who has aspirations to become a MP. He’s full of self-importance as evidenced by a framed picture of the cover of his autobiography: Alternative Therapy. He certainly needs a dose of it.
Hugh is compromised on so many levels and it’s obvious he has few friends and a family history that has done him no favours. He’s grotesque, lavishing thousands of pounds on bottles of wine that he doesn’t then drink – and possessing art that would pay off half of third world debt if sold at auction. Death threats by post are two a penny.
In the other is Alex (Gemma Pantaleo, making her professional London debut) who rushes into Hugh’s abode, wielding a gun as if she is Calamity Jane. For a while it looks like curtains for dear old Hugh, but they’re as messed up as each other. It’s only towards the end of the play that we discover why Alex has paid him a visit and chained him to a pipe.
Although the play is windy and could benefit from a haircut or three and the removal of the interval (an unnecessary interruption), there are occasional amusing lines to be found in the writing.
For example, referring to a conversation with his ex-wife, Alex says: ‘You couldn’t find [a certain sensual part of a woman’s sex] with vision aids and a sat nav.’ Oh dear. What a put down.
Both Heron and Pantaleo perform their roles admirably – Heron conveying Hugh’s bullying and upper crust ways quite perfectly. But their characters don’t emit much warmth or empathy. By the end, you don’t care much for either of them – even if reconciliation rather than revenge is the order of the day and both have disturbing back stories that want you to feel kindly towards them.
Ok, The Critic, directed by Sally Ripley, does not set the world on fire. But London’s arts scene is a better place for The Calder Bookshop & Theatre (it even shows classic films and hosts book launches).
Pay it a visit, stroke the cat, and buy a couple of books (new or second-hand). You’ll feel better for the experience.