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Two review – marriage's endless boxing match pulls no punches in the pub | Stage

They say every branch of Wetherspoon has a unique carpet. It looks like an idea Lis Evans has taken to heart in her design for Two. She has laid the whole in-the-round stage with a durable weave, its floral pattern in regal red. With floor tiles surrounding the circular bar, beermats on the tables and a jukebox glowing neon orange, you can almost smell the tar stains.

Directed by Ruth Carney, back in her home town for her mainstage debut at the New Vic, this is a garrulous, welcoming production of the 1989 Jim Cartwright two-hander, one that’s unafraid to look us in the eye and tell us a tale. Even before the show starts, Jimmy Fairhurst’s landlord is pulling pints for the audience. He is quick to charm the front row as if they were drinkers in a real local. The boundary between stage and auditorium blurs.

In true working-class tradition, Two has the structure of a variety show. With Samantha Robinson multitasking through the female roles, it switches tone with the abruptness of a cabaret night. Sharp-talking comedy makes way for bleak urban poetry; a karaoke singalong one minute, a domestic abuse drama the next; there are plenty of laughs and big dollops of sentiment. Bearing the influence of John McGrath’s A Good Night Out, the seminal text on popular theatre, it wears its heart on its sleeve and, although its political purpose is muted, looks honestly at the joys and stresses of working lives.

Friction and fun … Two.

Friction and fun … Two. Photograph: Mark Douet

Cartwright’s theme is heterosexual marriage, which he presents as an endless boxing match of confrontation and compromise, with love and devotion causing as much grief as rejection and hate. Even the most romantic moments are bittersweet: witness the old boy still swimming in the love of his dead wife. It keeps things tough when they could get soppy.

Not every scene in Carney’s good-hearted production hits the mark (it’s easier to believe in Robinson’s assertive karaoke singer than Fairhurst’s low-status husband), but the actors are great at denying each other ground, creating as much friction as fun and drawing the audience from light into shade.

At the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until 22 February.

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