Watching Linus Roache slink across the stage in Middletown, Will Eno’s new play off-Broadway, I couldn’t quite believe this was the same actor I’d first seen almost 20 years ago, as Edgar in a Stratford King Lear that also introduced me to Ralph Fiennes. Roache’s physical appearance is remarkably unchanged, but his Middletown role – a handyman in a small American city – is one I could never have imagined him tackling in those long-ago days at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

I should not have been startled: Roache keeps evolving as an actor. As a prosecuting attorney on American TV’s Law and Order, for example, a role he recently wrapped after two seasons, his American intonations were not credible; the speech and the characterisation felt forced. On stage now, his American accent is as calm as his gait.

Channelling Eno’s sometimes amusing, sometimes flat literary voice, Roache is the only actor in Middletown who creates a person rather than an empty vessel filled with Eno’s cleverness. And it’s a good thing: without his performance, the evening would seem protracted.

The un-vivid nature of Middletown characters can be interpreted as poetic: people living lives of quiet desperation, to whom the playwright gives voice. Or it can be viewed as existential: a word applied to Eno’s deservedly successful monodrama, Thom Pain, which premiered off-Broadway almost six years ago.

But if your characters are weak then you place more burden on the plot, and Middletown doesn’t have much of one. For the most part, it details the relationship of Roache’s character with Middletown newcomer Mary Swanson, given a sweet reading by Heather Burns. Village eccentrics – a librarian, a cop, a mechanic – dart in and out.

Eno’s gift – the reason estimable theatres produce him – is in his voice. On paper, his dialogue may appear flat, but in the hands of professional actors it has a dangerously quirky quality that is unlike anyone else. (Certainly not like Samuel Beckett, to whom Eno has been glibly compared.)

When Roache is speaking his matter-of-fact lines to Mary it becomes possible to believe that Middletown might lift off into something memorable. And the play, with occasional talk of black holes and gravity, encourages astronomical interpretation. But more often the evening remains earthbound. () www.vineyardtheatre.org

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