Roughs[author-post-rating] (3/5 stars)

East 15 Acting School has developed rather a reputation recently for churning out talented all-rounder artists, and assured actor-directors Adam El Hagar and Michael Rivers of d’Animate Theatre are no exception. Though their decision to stage Beckett’s Roughs for Theatre is a rather over-ambitious one that doesn’t quite hit the mark, there’s plenty of subtlety and sure-fire skill on show in these fast and funny theatrical sketches.

The Roughs are exactly that – odd, uncategorisable half-stories that pull back before we’ve a chance to really marvel, but d’Animate puts it full faith in them with vibrant, intelligent performances and commendably cohesive and stylistically astute directorial rationale. In our first Rough, we’re greeted by the earache-inducing scouring of violin strings, as an unlikely and uneasy friendship strikes up between a blind beggar and a sadistic wheel-chair bound amputee – hardly PC but that’s Beckett for you. The staging is simple, scaled-back to keep focus on the dialogue; Clearly, d’Animate knows that less is more. I couldn’t help but feel the actors were less certain how to make this ‘rough’ shine. In a decisive move away from pure absurdity, perhaps out of a reluctance to seem indulgent or inaccessible, they don’t take enough time to relish Beckett’s wickedly playful language, preferring to lend an ill-fitting kind of naturalism to the plight of these down-and-outs that ultimately clouds meaning and disrupts our own freedom of interpretation by trying to clarifying it.

It’s edifying, then, that Rough for Theatre II far supersedes its predecessor. El Hagar and Rivers evidently feel more comfortable when the story has more depth, and this sketch becomes a place for them to showcase their undeniable, off-beat charisma and impressive attention to detail. Here, they have a fine time playing ambiguous clerk-like characters,  who, with their dossiers and documents filled with unexpected information, appear to be the case workers for the potential suicide that stands on the window ledge.  Unlike Rough 1, this piece is really quite perfectly pitched. The pair’s contrasts spark off each other with real sophistication, and their power-play that ricochets between irritation, flirtation and simple buffoonery is delightful to watch. The use of lamps switching endlessly on and off is both farcical and strangely poignant, and is well-handled with a deliciously deadpan restraint. Proving their worth, El Hagar and Rivers take it in turns to shine. All in all, despite a somewhat uneven debut, I can’t emphasise how much I’m looking forward to d’Animate Theatre’s return, hopefully with a show of their own devising that can more ably showcase their considerable gifts.

Roughs played at Zoo Southside as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.