59E59 Theaters brings a wide variety of plays across the pond to New York every year for its Brits Off Broadway series. On the menu right now is Simon Callow’s remarkable performance in Tuesdays at Tesco’s, directed by Simon Stokes. Rollicking and raw in equal measure, Emmanuel Darley’s character study stars Callow as Pauline, born Paul but now, as she repeatedly insists, “me, myself, now and forevermore.”
Accompanied only by a solitary Musician (Conor Mitchell), who scores the monologue on a prepared piano, Pauline bellows, drawls, and drags us through her one-day-a-week visit to her crusty, aging father. She cleans his house, does his laundry, takes him shopping, and above all, endures his mystified anger about his offspring’s sex change, which is nothing but an embarrassment to him. But the old man has no one else, or so it seems to Pauline.
Callow brings old Andy vividly to life simply by means of a different voice, and voice is key to the actor’s whole performance. Callow’s vocal instrument is to the average person’s voice what a color image is to a black-and-white one. It’s a rubbery substance that comes in colors everywhere. Phrases escape like furtive animals. Individual words bite like palpable projectiles. Entire comic landscapes appear when Pauline describes a store clerk as making “a face like a cat’s bottom” or quotes Andy, in reference to Pauline: “What is that? What a bleeding pity!” Even jetting out the simplest, starkest Anglo-Saxon syllables, like “I am there. I go there,” Callow/Pauline wields language like a Hollywood swordsman.
Of course this reflects on the brilliant script too, adapted and translated by Matthew Hurt and Sarah Vermande. I did not care for the jarring ending, which seems to come out of nowhere. But I liked and admired everything else about the play, and about the production, too.
The set is ringed by a glowing ellipse like a ring of a circus. Pauline fills breaks in the narrative with awkward, grotesquely charming interpretive dances. The onstage musician appears to be composing music in fits and starts throughout the action, and when he actually plays his distorted piano the music is hesitant, experimental.
Perhaps the unexplained but effective conceit of the onstage musician signifies Pauline’s own conscious, painstaking “composition” of her own life as “me, myself, now and forevermore.” On a more basic level it also provides a second focal point to relieve Pauline of a little bit of the pressure of full attention. In any case, like the awkward, broken-sounding music itself, it works.
Reliving my 75 minutes with Simon Callow’s Pauline a few days afterwards, I’m filled with with a dark, vivid delight. It’s an extravagant, finely polished, emotionally and comically transcendent performance. Tuesdays at Tesco’s is at 59E59 through June 7.