Review: Oscar-winner Mark Rylance shows comic class on stage in Nice Fish

Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl as Ron and Erik
Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl as Ron and Erik
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Peter Ormerod reviews Nice Fish at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Is there a more likeable British actor than Mark Rylance? Here he is, months after winning an Oscar, on stage on a bare set in a small theatre in an absurdist comedy he's co-written about the practice of ice-fishing in Minnesota. You wouldn't get Christian Bale doing that.

Mark Rylance, Raye Birk and Jim Lichtsheidl as Ron, Wayne and Erik

Mark Rylance, Raye Birk and Jim Lichtsheidl as Ron, Wayne and Erik

And although he'd be too modest to admit it, it's Rylance who's clearly the star attraction here, and who's the best thing about the show. That's not to criticise anyone else involved, of course: Rylance is almost certain to be the best thing about anything he's involved with, whether that's the BBC's Wolf Hall, the recent Steven Spielberg films Bridge of Spies and The BFG, or pretty much all of his garlanded stage career. His presence is profoundly enigmatic: he seems to be made of different stuff from everyone else, ever twinkling and quixotic, while bringing a universal humanity and humaneness to all he does. It's a privilege to see him at work.

This is undoubtedly an extraordinary piece of theatre. Some might call it quirky, offbeat or oddball, but that would be to suggest a tweeness, or potentially irksome quality. It may be better to think of it as akin to Waiting for Godot as reimagined by David Lynch: the humour is by no means always obvious, relying more on a pervasive strangeness than witticisms or punchlines. At one point, Rylance's character lists the dietary habits of his various family members; it's far funnier than it has any right to be, as is a scene in which he pieces together a sandwich.

The play focuses on two characters, Ron, played by Rylance, and Erik, played by Jim Lichtscheidl. Erik is an earnest angler, stolidly waiting for a fish to bite from the other side of the ice on which they're sitting. Ron knows little about the art of angling but provides a degree of practical and moral support for his friend, offering unbidden his detailed thoughts on topics as diverse as women and mosquitoes. As time passes, and passes, and passes, they are joined by an assortment of unusual folk: a young woman named Flo, an officious environmental inspector who has no name and appears sincerely to believe he is some sort of angelic being; and an icy man named Wayne, who seems to embody winter. Each has much more to say than to do, there being precious little here in the way of conventional plot, but none seems extraneous to proceedings: they reminisce, cogitate, muse, philosophise, as befits a script based largely on the prose poems of Louis Jenkins.

It may have the makings of a slow evening, but one of the more remarkable aspects of the play is its pace. It is lent an urgency by Claire Van Kampen's often inspired direction, with small episodes played out as little vignettes ending abruptly in blackout, the light returning seconds later to show a reordered stage. Only a couple of scenes outstay their welcome, and even then, not by much. There is no interval; there is no need for one. It is also helped by a gradual shift in mood and tone: what begins comically ends quite heartbreakingly. Most important of all, for all its riches and depths, it never takes itself too seriously: unlike the fish, laughs are never far from the surface.

Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl as Ron and Erik

Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl as Ron and Erik

Credit is also due to some delightful staging. Todd Rosenthal's spare set is complemented by tiny trees, little huts, the occasional puppet, all contributing to the general air of woozy whimsy, which also infuses Van Kampen's delicate music.

It's fair to say some parts work better than others, with some disquisitions a little unnecessary; and, in the final analysis, it may not really add up to all that much. But, the play might have it, you could say the same about life, so let's enjoy it while we can. For 90 minutes, Nice Fish helps us do just that.

* Nice Fish runs until February 11. Visit www.nicefishtheplay.co.uk to book.