Review: Footfalls & Rockaby (Jermyn Street Theatre)

The small cellar space on Jermyn Street makes the perfect place to stage two of Samuel Beckett’s short, late plays.

With a combined running time of just forty minutes, this is one of the shortest shows I’ve reviewed, but there are such riches here in text and performance it is hard to feel short-changed.

Charlotte Emmerson is the first to the stage, interacting with the ghostly voiceover from Siân Phillips. This is Footfalls, in which May, a forty-something daughter of an invalid mother, paces the corridor relentlessly: nine steps each way.

Phillips makes her own solo appearance in Rockaby, a nine-minute piece set in a rocking chair and largely performed in voiceover. It is a piece about memory, repetition and the slow descent into death.

Charlotte Emmerson in Footfalls

Beckett’s work is never set clearly as dramatic narrative, and although director Richard Beecham has taken the artistic decision to link these pieces closely by use of a linking nursery rhyme, they were not written as a continuation of each other.

This staging of Footfalls and Rockaby could lead us to believe we are watching, perhaps, the same character at a different stage in life – the Woman rocking herself into deep sleep could be May, the woman whose mother reminds her “there is no sleep so deep I would not hear you”.

Simon Kenny’s set and costumes strongly suggest entrapment and imprisonment of the soul: a catwalk and box framed with a light strip; May’s cardigan wrapping her with both warmth and constraint; the Woman’s “best black”.

Sian Phillips in Rockaby

Adrienne Quartly’s sound design of tinkling bells and swirling atmosphere work well with Ben Ormerod’s understated lighting, which illuminates moments of text and emotional engagement.

In the performances by Emmerson (a ghost herself, or trapped with her mother’s spirit, doomed to forever pace and turn?) and Phillips, we see both rawness and resignation. The rhythms of both text and motion are strongly transmitted with at auditorium painted black.

In a world where our lives have become somewhat smaller, and where death is inevitably all around us, Beckett still has the power to needle us, picking at our insecurities, as well as conjuring up our own memories.

These are two small but beautiful masterpieces.

Footfalls and Rockaby continue at Jermyn Street Theatre until 20 November, before transferring to the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, from 24 November to 4 December.

Image credit: Steve Gregson