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'One Hand Clapping' Adapts Anthony Burgess' Novel

This psychological thriller livens up 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway festival.

Photos by Emma Phillipson

Janet and Howard Shirley are an ordinary middle-class couple living an ordinary life in suburban England in the early 1960s. Howard, however, has the unique gift of a photographic memory that soon morphs into something much more, and as he begins to use it to amass more and more wealth, his and Janet's life takes a dark turn. Anthony Burgess' One Hand Clapping, adapted and directed by Lucia Cox, is a psychological thriller hidden within the framework of a sedate period tale, and you will never suspect where the story is going to end up.

With slow, episodic pacing and action regularly punctuated by Janet's lengthy narrative monologues, the play is clearly very beholden to its source material. Recurring motifs gently draw you into the world of the Shirleys, from Howard's characteristic readjusting of a single book on the shelf to Janet's miniature advertisements for various household products. And little by little, their lives grow more decadent, mysterious and sinister.

One Hand Clapping is a criticism of middle-class advancement and of Western society in general. Howard uses his innate talents to quickly amass a large fortune, but through gambling rather than hard work, and the only thing he can think to do with it is follow all of his culture's cliches, from couture clothes for his wife to international travel. The only thing that money is good for, he posits, is showing everyone that you have it, and once that is accomplished there is nothing else left to do at all.

But Howard cannot remain fully in control of everything that happens, infinite wealth and talent or not. For pitted against his desire to be grandiose is his wife's to be ordinary, to have a simple home and simple food and simple love. And when Howard's alienating behavior does not satisfy, Redvers Glass--the self-centered young poet Howard has decided to support as another display of privilege--steps in to win her over.

The chemistry between these three performers is the core of the play, with consistently strong acting all around as they take on a truly bizarre cast of characters. Oliver Devoti plays a cold, distant Howard who nonetheless manages to be loving and relatable when it comes to his wife, while Adam Urey is charming as entitled rich kid and poet Redvers Glass. And Eve Burley is an engaging presence onstage throughout, even as she moves from traditional housewife to violent, dangerous schemer.

This transition from the simply offbeat to the bloody is almost unnoticeable, the characters plodding along sedately until finally, Howard announces his ultimate plans for his wife and himself. Missing is a comprehensive sound or lighting design that would imbue the world of One Hand Clapping with a true sense of its own creepiness. Instead, we spend much of the early part of the play marking time, unsure of how we are meant to interpret Howard's behavior and waiting for the play to find itself.

One of the play's innovative elements is its use of television sets to punctuate the action with game shows and surreal cartoon sequences, but this motif could have had a much stronger impact if its effect had been clearer. The performance's strongest moments, in fact, are in its eerie, non-naturalistic scenes, such as throughout the Shirleys' voyage to America. Only in fully embracing the unique opportunities theater provides does this play move beyond its source material and into a powerful work of art.

Still, Anthony Burgess' One Hand Clapping is a chilling and accessible take on the novel, intimate and well-performed, and still as relevant today as it was to the materialistic culture Burgess wrote against fifty years ago.

Anthony Burgess' One Hand Clapping plays at 59E59 through May 31.

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