When the bell rings to mark the beginning and end of Winnie's day in Andy Arnold's exquisite revival of Samuel Beckett's classic piece of existential vaudeville, it's urgent peals may suggest closing time on some kind of gladitorial struggle, but her enforced stillness says otherwise. Such contradictions of hope and despair are at the heart of Beckett's work, and, buried to her waist in the sand as if the victim of some urchins prank while sleeping, Karen Dunbar's Winnie is an equally mercurial creature.
One minute she's all smiles, rummaging through the bag beside her for an assortment of beauty aides to help keep up appearances. The next she's fondling a revolver, waxing lyrical on what the day may or may not bring. Her partner in crime Willie, meanwhile, all but ignores her, hiding from the sun behind a newspaper as he throws out monosyllabic non-sequiters.
The assorted rituals constructed from domestic minutiae Winnie uses to survive are as painfully recognisable as the studied apathy of Willie, played by Arnold himself with quiet desperation.
Designer Carys Hobbs' post-apocalyptic landscape may look to painter Max Ernst for inspiration, but Arnold and Dunbar are as akin to a saucy seaside postcard come to life out of season as to surrealism. Winnie and Willie are the ultimate end of the pier double act giving their all with a kiss me quick routine that will kill ya if it doesn't get them first.
In this respect Dunbar performs the remarkable feat of taking what can often be played as an interior monologue and externalising it. Without ever overplaying it, there's a nod to the audience here and an eye-roll there. The business with the hat and the painted on showbiz smiles are the stuff of music hall and silent movies.
As masterful Dunbar is with such comic material, she is even more so in the play's more insular and pathos-driven second half, where her wonderfully held silences speak volumes about the pain she's in, only for her to be mercifully saved by the bell. Again.
The Herald, May 18th 2015