Theatre review: The Half, Pleasance Courtyard

The Half is the half-hour call given to theatrical performers precisely 30 minutes before they're due to take to the stage, and the two women spending it together here are Anderson and West, a once-successful British comedy double act who haven't seen each other in a decade.
Anna Crilly (Anderson) and West (Margaret Cabourn-Smith). Picture: Nobby ClarkAnna Crilly (Anderson) and West (Margaret Cabourn-Smith). Picture: Nobby Clark
Anna Crilly (Anderson) and West (Margaret Cabourn-Smith). Picture: Nobby Clark

The Half, Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) ****

Their lives have gone in very different directions, but they’ve agreed to get back together once more for a special show at the London Palladium in which well-known comedians re-enact scenes from famous movies. Why would they be given a scene from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, they speculate. Could it be because only this or Thelma & Louise are in-any-way-notable films which feature two female leads?

Either way the choice is appropriate, for the pair are in varying degrees of washed-upness themselves, tainted by the demands of their own toxic egos. It was West, we learn, who originally split their partnership up to take on a small recurring role in a US sitcom, and Anderson can’t hide her glee that the show has long been cancelled; what then, asks West, of Anderson’s part in a Vanish advert and the one-person bedsit she’s moved into since her career went south? Is that why she smells of “piss and gin and fags and mothballs”?

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Anna Crilly (Anderson) and West (Margaret Cabourn-Smith) are the leads in Danielle Ward’s play; all three are gifted comedy performers, and there’s initially much to enjoy in the interactions of two catty middle-aged women verbally going at each other with a furious jealousy. It’s filled with elegant one-liners; “I call it ‘the Scottish place’,” says West with Shakespearean gravitas when remembering a failed Edinburgh Festival run, “I nearly died of exhaustion and jacket potatoes.”

Yet the edge of darkness which is there from very early in the piece consumes it by the end, and Ward’s script is masterful in the way it shifts gear from jokey fun-poking at old comics gone self-regardingly thespian to a study of loneliness, isolation and world-ending tragedy. As comedy theatre and a piece of theatre about comedy, it works on every level.

• Until 26 August, 2pm