A few weeks ago I had the extraordinary good fortune to watch two of my favorite actors perform in New York City. Dame Eileen Atkins has won numerous awards in British theatre, television, and film. And she has appeared in, or been responsible for, so many of my favorite television programs—most of them broadcast on PBS—that it's difficult to narrow down my favorite. She was one of the chief creators of the original Upstairs, Downstairs series as well as House of Eliot. Although if hard pressed, I would have to say her role of Miss Deborah, the elder strait-laced sister in Cranford, based on a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, was easily one of my favorites.
Sir Michael Gambon has been in countless films and television series over the years—including the disturbing Peter Greenaway flick The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover—although his depiction of Inspector Maigret is perhaps the character I've enjoyed most. (More recently, he crossed over into pop culture in his recurring role as Dumbledore, filling the wizardly shoes of another fine actor, the late Richard Harris.) His theatre awards are many, and he is considered a "bright light" in British theatre, appearing frequently with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the Royal National Theatre. He, too, had a role in Cranford as the elderly Mr. Holbrook, whose courtship with the endearing Miss Matty, years earlier, was thwarted by her spinster sister, Miss Deborah.
Samuel Becket's All That Fall was written as a radio play, but director Trevor Nunn guided the actors to a happy medium: dressed for their roles, they held scripts and limited their movements to suit the various sound effects that peppered the production—blaring car horns, clopping horses, braying farm animals, arriving trains, and the dull scrape of Mrs. Rooney's feeble steps as she walks to the station to meet her blind husband.
That is the sum of the action: a walk to the rail station, meeting her husband, and their walk home. But it is fraught with pathos, humor, defeat, tragedy, and what Stefan Brook-Grant calls "the deeper melody of the pain of existence."
We also had a chance to be a bit star struck, finding Mr. Gambon and several members of his cast drinking coffee before the production in the same small cafe where we'd taken shelter from the cold. We were polite and kept to ourselves, but I was grinning from ear to ear at the sight of Miss Deborah and Mr. Holbrook.