When the lights go up on The Last Will and Testament of Henry Van Dyke, the reason for the grandiose and oh so slightly pretentious title is unclear. Here we have two blokes sitting on a sofa, engaging in typically blokeish banter about celebrities’ sex lives, nonsensical anecdotes about their own and insults about each others’. The impression is more Men Behaving Badly than an ode to a literary heavyweight.
As the action unfolds over an immersive hour, however, we discover that
Karrim Jalali’s witty and naturalistic debut script amounts to much more than a simple parody of a 1990’s sitcom and by the end of the piece the title is put very clearly into context. The naturalism is enhanced by some subtle and sensitive direction from Joy Harrison as well as sublime performances from Nathan Wright and Niall Murphy and at times the audience is left to question whether we are watching a play or sitting in their living room. The intimate setting of the Tabard Theatre plays a part here too.
Using the premise of two ordinary men with very different approaches to the world and how they can make their mark creatively, The Last Will and Testament of Henry Van Dyke takes the audience on a journey which invites a questioning of how we all see art and life itself. Wright is Person 1, a would be writer whose Black Country accent is put to great effect to portray his relentlessly enthusiastic and laid-back idealism. By contrast, Murphy’s Irish lilt befits the more systematic, pragmatic approach to life of the failed musician Person 2.
As these differing traits clash comically over the mechanics of one last creative endeavour, both characters (and the audience!) have their pre-conceived notion of what constitutes a play challenged. One minute we appear to be simply eavesdropping on the characters’ everyday lives, the next we are seeing that action acted out on the stage with clever, knowing nods to theatrical conventions such as monologues, soliloquy’s (well done Nathan!) and precise stage directions. Jalali also gives us some well-observed in-jokes about the audience’s expectations of a play which are made all the more ironically funny, coming from the assured and knowing lips of Wright and Murphy.
The simple set, deft changes of Acts and the play out music, “The Impossible Dream” all contribute to the impression that a play doesn’t have to be all singing, all dancing and equipped with fancy resources to get its point across. There is room for all forms of theatre as there is all forms and levels of creativity.
The point is made by Person 1 himself, quoting from one of his favourite authors, Henry Van Dyke: “The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang best.”
The Last Will and Testament of Henry Van Dyke is Karrim Jalali’s first play. I think he should continue singing.