|L-R: Eve Burley and Oliver Devoti in ONE HAND CLAPPING. Photo by Emma Phillipson.|
Anthony Burgess wrote the novel One Hand Clapping under the pseudonym Joseph Kell in 1961. The book subsequently was adapted for the stage by Lucia Cox and was first produced at the Bolton Octagon Theatre in Lancashire, Burgess’s birthplace, last year. The play has since crossed the pond and, in a House of Orphans production and under the direction of Lucia Cox, is currently enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan as the second production in this year’s highly regarded annual Brits Off Broadway program.
The central character in One Hand Clapping is Janet Shirley (Eve Burley), a 23 year old ordinary housewife and supermarket clerk, content with her simple lot in life and relatively happily married to Howard Shirley (Oliver Devoti), a 27 year old sleep-walking, obsessive-compulsive, used car salesman, who appears to be rapidly descending into full-fledged madness. Nor is Howard simply OCD and somewhat loopy; he also has a photographic memory and may even be clairvoyant (or perhaps just very lucky) as well.
It is Howard’s photographic memory which enables him to win 1,000 pounds on a British television quiz show and his clairvoyance (or plain dumb luck) that results in his parlaying the 1,000 pounds into 79,000 pounds by betting on the horses – enough to bring about a really substantial change in the Shirleys’s lives. Or so they thought.
Their new-found wealth could just be used to buy stuff – a mink coat for Janet, for instance, or fancy dinners – but as they quickly discover, that doesn’t really work. Indeed, Janet finds that she much prefers “something nice to eat, beans on toast and some corned beef….a welcome relief after all that fancy muck…duck in some horrid orange sauce and fancy Champagne when a cup of tea would have done just as well.”
Well then, how about using the money for some good cause? At one point, Howard does donate “1,000 pounds to support a starving artist” and later he suggests contributing to such causes as “Guide Dogs and Starving Chinese Children and things like that.” But his donation to Redvers Glass (Adam Urey), a presumed “starving artist,” doesn’t go well at all: for starters, the journalist who Howard authorizes to make the donation on his behalf skims 100 pounds off the top; then Red, himself, turns out to be something of a charlatan; and finally, apparently finding that 900 pounds isn’t really such a big deal, Red turns his attention to the seduction of Howard’s wife instead. And as for the “Guide Dogs and Starving Chinese Children,” those ideas never even get off the ground.
But if buying stuff and donating to good causes don’t make the Shirleys any happier, what might? Howard’s answer: travel and experiences. Or, as he puts it: “The time for buying things of a permanent nature is all finished….The money is to be spent on living and not to be saved at all or converted into ornaments or furnishings or things of that nature.” And so Howard arranges for them to travel – to New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But when they’ve been there and back, they find that they’re no happier than before (in fact, maybe even less so). And Janet concludes: “I suppose the only real reason for traveling is to learn that all people are the same.”
Eve Burley is terrific as Janet, clinging to the world she knows and understands and comfortable in the subordinate marital role she has chosen to accept in a pre-feminist time, but realizing that a line must be drawn short of her total sacrifice to her husband’s insanity. Oliver Devoti is as tightly wound up as a cyborg in his role as the rapidly disintegrating Howard. And Adam Urey contributes just the comic relief that the play requires in his dual roles as Red and as Laddie O’Neill, the talk show host.
Anthony Burgess being Anthony Burgess, of course, One Hand Clapping is meant to be a direct attack on America’s capitalist free enterprise system and its leading to – horror or horrors! – consumerism run amok and the danger that Great Britain might follow the US down that sordid path to hell. But it is even more than that: it is an existential and nihilistic tirade against life itself, questioning the very morality of bringing new lives into a world threatened by nuclear weapons or the ethical calculus involved in measuring the value of lives lost against those newly created. And as such, despite the stellar performances of the entire cast, the play itself really was not my cup of tea.