The glass is definitely half-full in this dark two-hander, set in a wine shop which borders on the ethereal. In just 30 minutes, Eye Saw Theatre delivers intrigue, drama and laugh-out-loud humour. Jeff Rawle sparkles as the enigmatic and whimsical proprietor, Peter, counterbalanced by brooding customer Samuel (Benjamin Dilloway) who commands a mystery of his own. A slightly slow start is soon forgotten as the tension mounts, bringing with it some belting gags and ripples of subtler character humour.
Eternity itself appears to be bottled within the small shop and Peter, genie-like, inhabits the whole space. Prattling but elusive, he enjoys leading a frustrated Samuel around both the shelves and the proverbial houses, applying his eccentric (atrocious) take on customer service. As the implications of their transaction become clearer, menace emerges on both sides and we realise that neither man can leave. Minimal set allows us to conjure our own image of the Aladdin’s cave of bottles and cases, but a slightly more crowded stage – creating a more intimate setting – might have further heightened the sense of claustrophobia between characters.
That said, in its most dramatic scenes, the play serves up plenty of edge-of-the-seat fare, and these also yield some of the play’s finest humour. In a stand-off between characters, the audience suddenly roars with momentary catharsis as Peter half-taunts, half-commiserates with a desperate Samuel.
Rob Hayes’ play also revels in irreverence, touching upon elements of Dan Brown’s bible-bashing The Da Vinci Code, while blowing a raspberry at the bestselling thriller at the same time. Once or twice the comedy verges on the crass, for example a joke about the contents of the dead Princess Diana’s stomach invokes a fairly exhausted comedic muse, but in the main a steady flow of titters is sustained. And with laughs arising alternately from different areas of the audience, the scope of Hayes’ appeal is evident.
Darkly enthralling, the play continues the legacy of Hayes’s 2011 London debut, A Butcher Of Distinction. Supported by robust direction (again by Ned Bennett) and highly adept performers, Excellent Choice offers a sample-size helping of a very promising writing talent indeed.