Hope is a different kind of work for the Royal Court. Moving at a slower pace than the mile-a-minute Scouse plays it is known for, the show demands a little patience and thought from its audience. It is nice to see a venue so large held in thrall to a piece that demands a little concentration as well as entertains.
Norm is a struggling writer, sitting in his flat, old-fashioned word processor on the coffee table. He hasn’t slept in days and is cracking open a hidden stash of scotch at 6.45 in the morning. He is not, we can quickly conclude, in a good place.
Mark Womack’s Norm is not a particularly sympathetic character, his insomnia and writer’s block creating the kind of unpleasant manner The Shining’s Jack Torrance would probably recognise. His rough edges go some way to being smoothed by the entrance of his flatmate Guy (Rene Zagger) – creating a claustrophobic double act that operates in tandem with the old Laurel and Hardy movies they keep coming back to on the television.
Zagger is impressive – perhaps even gives one of the performances of the year – as the slightly unhinged, ever-optimistic listening ear. His delivery provides some of the biggest laughs, and provides much needed comic relief to as a foil to Norm’s self-indulgent pomposity.
Scot Williams’s script is peppered with literary references, like Kevin Smith swallowing the Times Literary Supplement. These are sometimes a little heavy-handed, but also go a way to revealing the inner workings of our characters’ minds.
Not before time, Williams enters as alpha male Victor, joined at the hip (and more) with the titular Hope, an apparent third housemate (anyone remember Game On?). The coup for this production was the star billing of Samantha Womack, perfectly cast as the almost ethereal charmer enthralling them all – who might just make everything make sense. Victor, too, brings his share of laughs, which are much needed as the darker strand of the story continues to take hold.
Norms’s television and typewriter are ancient, and decor decades out of date, yet a gag about Angry Birds would seem to set the play in the present day. The Americana soundtrack – including a memorable scene with Samantha Womack and Zagger to the backdrop of Mazzy Star – is evocative and helps capture that strange, detached feeling of those hours just before dawn.
Hope is on at the Royal Court until March 30.