This is a brilliant but desperately bleak play. Written by Simon Stephens around ten years ago, it focuses on four unhappy men gathered in a run-down pub on a night in the week before Christmas. Three of them already know each other well – the fourth is a newcomer who wanders into this particular pub for a reason that becomes clear near the end of the play. The stranger provides a spark that forces the other three to confront the demons that have left them in quiet despair but he also finds that he has to face up to his own tragedy too. There is no comfort in the ending of the play – one is left with the feeling that these men are doomed to many more nights of quiet drunken desperation.
The White Bear is a pub in Kennington and, when you first enter the theatre for this play, it is as if you have stumbled across a shabby old bar that the landlord hasn’t had the money to refurbish. It conjures up all those old East End boozers that have disappeared to be replaced by gastro-pubs frequented by hipsters. Even the beer that comes out of the pump looks stale.
The landlord of the pub, Michael Macgraw, is played by the superb William Ely who manages to combine a shaky grasp on the bonhomie needed to keep his customers happy with flashes of buttoned-up rage and desperation. The pub is clearly on the verge of going bust and Michael, an angry divorcee, has no idea how to turn things around. His ‘regulars’ are Billy Lee Russell, played by Ralph Aiken, and Guiseppi Rossi, played by Lionel Guyett. Billy is a rather dim building worker who, despite being around 30, lives with his mother – and one gets the impression that he is under her thumb. Guiseppi is a barber who has lost his wife and who, despite his fragile dignity, is also on the verge of losing his grip. The relationship between these three is beautifully drawn with its shifting sands of respect and concern and Aiken and Russell deliver finely drawn portrayals of damaged and lost men.
Into this setting a stranger – Charlie Anderson – enters and disrupts the reassuring patterns of their normal interaction. At first it is difficult to work out if his mercurial mix of humour and aggression is benign or not but as the drama develops he seems an increasingly sinister force. The more the brilliant James Groom smiles, the more we expect a cathartic outbreak of violence. But at the harrowing climax of the play we learn about the demons that have brought Charlie back to this particular pub. There is a revelation but no resolution.
This is a difficult play to enjoy. The language is foul and relentless and the characters are bound up in their own sadness which we learn about despite their determination to remain tight-lipped for fear of seeming weak. The saddest part of the drama is the sense that they all want to comfort each other but don’t know how. However, it is an absolutely riveting 90 minutes with four splendid performances.