Topdog/Underdog ****

The Citizens Circle theatre space gives a very good hint at what Topdog/Underdog is going to be about well before the actors traverse its stage.  The set is of a dingy flat, sparse in furnishing and liberal in the holes in the ceiling.  There’s a heavily stained and tarnished armchair, and there is a single bed that has piles of pornography (some easily seen) peeking out from under.  The scent of desperation and economic hardship is explicit.

Suzan-Lori Park’s script is a modern little gem.  It sees two brothers, abandoned by their parents and chewed up by society, struggling to survive.  Older brother Lincoln used to be a con man but has since given up crime to be a living target at an arcade; younger brother Booth sees himself as a ‘player’ and wants to become an ace at 3 Card Monte.

The brothers have a great rapport with each other with clever lines and a knowing acceptance at each others’ flaws.  However, the set, the character names and the events that occur in the first few minutes make the ending all but inevitable.  These characters have big dreams but their fate is all but sealed.

Actors Tyronne Lewis and Nicholas Pinnock must then be even more commended for making the end not only work but come as a sharp surprise.  Pinnock’s older and wiser Lincoln just wants to live his life, and Pinnock plays him as a sympathetic man whose unfortunate shackles are keeping a genuinely good man down.  Lewis’ Booth is a charming schemer who has the bad habit of jumping first and looking second.  Together, both not only make for convincing siblings but portray a damaged relationship that is completely engrossing.

The production elements themselves are quite solid.  Leann O’Kasi’s direction is confident and makes great use of the Circle, and Neil Haynes excellent design, with Simon Wilkinson’s effective lighting, make the production all the more real.  Kudos should also be given to Kevin Wratten, who not only coached the two actors in the crucial game of 3 Card Monte but also had fun showing off his tricks during the interval of the press night.

It’s at times difficult to watch, but Topdog/Underdog is an excellent production of a slick script and contains two solid and effective performances.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Playing at the Citizens until November 7.

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