“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” wrote Samuel Beckett in his play, Endgame. It is apt, then, that in the Arcola Theatre’s bold new production of his famous masterpiece Waiting for Godot, the vagrants are played by stand-up comedy duo Totally Tom.
The Samuel Beckett estate is notoriously strict on the direction of his plays. Ex-Eton master and director Simon Dormandy’s casting of his former pupils, who swap bowler hats for baseball caps in the lead roles of Vladimir and Estragon, has created a few ripples of surprise.
The youth of Totally Tom might irk the purists – but they give new life to a play perhaps otherwise fated to a future as the unyielding subject of undergraduate dissertations. Playing Vladimir, Tom Palmer channels a Soho video editor with his bike satchel and scuffed Nikes while his gangly companion Estragon (Tom Stourton) has the air of a morose Irish barman – the kind you might find working in a Dalston dive.
Their clothes might be updated but Didi and Gogo’s predicament remains unchanged. They turn up to their barren spot, a background of rubble and puddles artfully designed by Patrick Kinmouth, every day to wait for their appointment with Mr Godot. The waiting is still agony, as Didi says: “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”
Their wretched impasse is punctuated by the arrival of Pozzo (Jonathan Oliver) – a whip-wielding egocentric who has an elderly man, Lucky (Michael Roberts) tied to a rope. Oliver’s Pozzo is an East End geezer with a leather pork-pie hat, rings and tattoos but he is rather out-shined by the dexterity of his slave. Commanded to ‘think!’ on demand, Roberts produces a torrent of gibberish both disturbing and entertaining, when commanded to ‘dance!’ he performs a shuffling and strangely affecting flamenco routine.
Totally Tom shift the emphasis of Beckett’s literary anti-heroes, giving them a sense of optimism that only makes the disappointment of Godot’s absence more intense. The jokes are not total tomfoolery but palliatives, desperate attempts to conceal the horror of waking up to a life without meaning.
Perhaps it is the agonisingly slow passage of time that means Didi and Gogo have been seen traditionally as middle-aged rather than young men. Dormandy’s Godot suggests that today it is the tracksuits not the suits that wait in limbo. Get a ticket, what are you waiting for?
Waiting for Godot is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until 14 June.