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THE TIMES

Underneath the Lintel at the Assembly

Libby Purves


25 August 2010

★★★★★

Often at the Fringe it’s the afterthought, the casual late booking, which blows you away. Of the writer Glen Berger I knew only that he is currently working on Spider-Man the Musical with Bono; of Philip O’Sullivan, best-actor nominee at the Dublin fringe, nothing.

I shall not forget them now: not after the best 90 minutes of these crowded Edinburgh days. Underneath the Lintel is a twisting story told by a prissy, forcibly retired Dutch assistant librarian, one of life’s losers, who yet opens a doorway into the Universe and into thoughts too deep for tears.

Our hero opens with a riff about the adjustable date-stamp pinched from his former employers: “It contains every date there ever was — here, 1883 the explosion of Krakatoa ... the date of my death and yours is in here somewhere, I don’t know where ... ” His trail begins in pedantic outrage at the return of a library book borrowed in the 19th century and left in the overnight bin. “If you have a book 113 years overdue you go to the counter,” he says crossly.

Sending a fines notice to a Chinese box number, tracking an old cleaning ticket to retrieve ancient trousers, he searches the world for the borrower, forfeiting job and pension, showing us travel slides and dirty relics from a suitcase, giving small glimpses of his own small life and regrets. It’s a shaggy-dog chronicle of crazy detection and I would not spoil it: only to say that every time I thought that the play could not keep up this level of engaged astonishment, it did.

We are taken into 18th-century English hunting country, Jewish myth, Chinese street life, two world wars, prehistory, the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the Holocaust. Impassioned, eccentric, driven, beautifully nuanced, the old Dutchman affirms the power of rags and relics, evidence and records, the pathetic traces that people leave behind. We taste the terror of oblivion and the mythic horror of immortality, consider a vengeful God and the glorious defiance of free will. “I lost my job,” says the old man in the scuffed gym shoes and smelly suit, closing his suitcase at last. “But I had the story of mankind in my hands!”

You have to rejoice when a quirky, demanding, dazzlingly ambitious one-man play such as this finds its perfect interpreter. It made me cry.