Joe Penhall, at 28, may have just two Royal Court plays to his credit, but he is already staking out distinctive terrain as a chronicler of life’s sufferers whose readjustments seem destined to go awry. Last season’s Theater Upstairs play, “Some Voices,” focused on a schizophrenic whose re-entry into the real world is psychotically compromised by his new girlfriend’s thuggish ex-lover. In his new studio play, “Pale Horse,” the burly Charles (Ray Winstone) wouldn’t dream of acting on the violent impulses within him if the world at large were not more violent — or senseless — than anything he could imagine.
The play starts with the shock of bereavement; indeed, the “pale horse” of the title is death. Charles, a south London club owner, is reeling from the loss of his wife, who walked in front of a bus for reasons he will never know. Enter Lucy (Kacey Ainsworth), a barmaid on the run from a loutish club owner chum of Charles’, who made the mistake of serving up rubber bands as pasta and spanking her one time too many. (Well, this is England … ) Before long, the murderous Lucy, with Charles as an accomplice, is digging up Kandis Cook’s fine, gritty set to deposit the lout’s dead body even as the older man and the young, bruised woman find new life of sorts in one another’s arms.
All, though, is not to be well. Having taken Lucy on staff, Charles doesn’t reckon on her reckless impulses. One evening, she wields a knife on a drunken customer whom Charles ends up bribing to get him to keep quiet. Lucy, not terribly plausibly, turns on her newfound boss as “a monster” and slips mentally out of reach with fantasies about the Antichrist living in south London. At every turn, Charles finds rage, aggression and reminders of his dead wife; this is a man with faith in love but no one to love.
There’s something commendable about the bleakness of Penhall’s vision, which follows in the Court tradition of Edward Bond or Howard Barker, though without the richness of language (as yet) to match. More so than in “Some Voices,” the style here is so pared to the bone that Charles’ generalized angst –“I’m lost,” he cries, “I don’t know where I am”– has no choice but to seem overworked, and the celestial strains of Stephen Warbeck’s otherwise evocative score only point up the strain.
What effect the play does have derives from director Ian Rickson’s brisk, vivid maneuvering through the clipped scenes and from Winstone’s ability to elevate Charles’ woes into the realm of archetype. (The rest of the cast is good , too, especially Lynne Verrall in three contrasting roles.) Looking every bit the would-be bruiser, Winstone plays a man heavy of heart but delicate of emotion, which is why, for all its potential ponderousness, the evening remains light on its feet.