The Handyman, Oxford Playhouse



Ronald Harwood’s play leaves its audience with some deeply moving thoughts but unfortunately this thought -provoking nature sits at odds with the occasional lack of dynamism between the characters. The emphasis on the poignant is effective but does mean that the acting struggles to assert itself against the heavy themes of the play.

The audience is welcomed into the scene of an Eden-like garden in the heart of England, owned by Cressida and Julian Field. Their foremost concern is the death of their cat Rosie, importantly not spelt with a ‘y’. The couple are soothed by their handyman Roman (Timothy West), who proves to be a particular comfort to Cressida. Their relationship (originating in Roman’s friendship with her father, forged in a Ukrainian war camp) is particularly well explored, something that heightens the pathos of the very last scene.

The audience is soon engaged in much deeper problems of the trio when the police arrest Roman for the murder of 817 Jews in the Ukraine during the Second World War. It is at this stage that the handyman’s character truly becomes one worthy of attention. West delivers a strong performance, aided by several powerful monologues. At this point the audience has no choice but to become emotionally engaged, even attached, to this character.

In the second half of the play, in the sterile setting of a police cell, Harwood’s creation manages to reach its potential. Under the detectives’ questioning and in the company of his solicitor Marion Stone, Roman’s ghastly story is brought into the open. Questions are not just put to the accused. The audience has to ask too whether it is just to drag an elderly man through an arduous prosecution and trial for events which occured 50 years ago. With video testimonies from Nikita Fedorenko (Steven Berkoff) and Sister Sophia (Vanessa Redgrave) the pieces of the terrible event that occurred in the Ukrainian woods fall into place. It is Redgrave’s on-screen performance in particular that brings the past painfully to life.

The Handyman leaves the audience with some strong individual performances and some deep and challenging thoughts on humanity and morality. However, these deep explorations seem to grate with the stilted interactions between the actors. Disregarding this,v the play truly must be recommended to anyone who is ready for a turbulent exploration of human guilt.

*** (3 STARS)