In a deserted bar in a dusty town somewhere in the Australian outback, a barman prepares himself for the drudgery of a long day. After a brief phone call, where nothing much is said, two dishevelled characters enter, irritated at having already missed three minutes’ drinking time. They quibble with each other over who is to “shout” the first drink, and once the barman has resolved this debate – the first of a recurring motif – the day’s drinking begins. With it comes constant repetition and bickering between the two men, while Ron the barman wearily fuels them and their idle banter with alcohol.
The audience is also trapped in the dreary nothingness of existence that these men seem to face daily.
Anyone familiar with Beckett will immediately spot a likeness to the nihilism of Waiting for Godot or Endgame. The scruffy, demented-sounding Cyril and slightly more dapper Toby are a strange mix of several of Beckett’s characters, trotting out lines such as “I have to wait all of today to get to tomorrow,” and “It helps to pass the time,” while discussing the presence of rats, crocs, and how many sheep they could shear in a day. The audience is supplied with a glossary of Aussie terms, printed on a glossy laminated sheet, although none is particularly alien – but this is doubtless part of the desiccated humour.
With the constant repetition of “whose shout is it,” the continual cancelling-out of one another’s lines, and the sense of waiting for nothing (or possibly something) to happen, the audience is also trapped in the dreary nothingness of existence that these men seem to face daily. Like Beckett, it is somehow captivating. The venue has a cabaret-style seating arrangement, so the audience could be in the bar with these colossal bores, and yet there is no reason to identify with the drinkers, since drinking – and talking rubbish – is all they seem to do.
When Ron, the barman, drifts into the audience and his own thoughts, sweeping up nothing with a dustpan and brush while the drinkers prattle on, it feels as if the fourth wall has been breached if not broken. He ponders, over Toby’s racist rant, that it’s a bit dull being happy – but Cyril and Toby drag him back into their drudgery soon enough. Ron’s happiness is equally contestable: he merely exists. Even when he infects the men’s beer with rat poison, having caught his fingers in a trap (with little apparent pain) it seems unlikely that anything will come of it. Matthew McFarlane plays Ron with such nonchalance, bordering on boredom, one almost pities him.
Like in Godot, in The Exchange, nothing happens twice. The drinkers return on the following day, and a false expectation that something might actually happen (since it is a Saturday) is quickly put down to a joke played on Bradley Burgess’s haughty Toby. Phillip Aughey’s idiotic Cyril starts to grate, but like Lucky in Godot, he is given an opportunity to demonstrate the ability to think, yet is halted by Toby. This is hard drama to pull off, and the eventual intrusion of the tinkling phone is a blessed relief to the audience as well as the characters. Of course, nothing comes of it, and the quietly resigned and obedient barman finally cracks. Well, ‘cracks’ might be an exaggeration.
With so little action, seemingly meaningless dialogue, and barely a plot to speak of, this is a strangely satisfying play that not everyone will enjoy. But that, perhaps, is the point. As Ron the barman concludes, “Perhaps I should have chosen another road – but it’s too late now.” You can be sure that Cyril and Toby, and many others like them, will be back in the bar tomorrow, with or without other customers.