Arcola Theatre | London
directed by Alice Hamilton
One old-fashioned living room, ornamented with seated figures who have lost, or are losing themselves; billed as a love story, Barney Norris's play is more of a loss story. His first staged full-length script reveals itself as such only by its freshness and lightness of touch – his handling of this dimly unfolding story of forgetting is masterful.
Edie and Arthur are an elderly couple living together in a remote farmhouse; but although he still tramps about from land to house, feeding chickens and caring for livestock, she's fading slowly into dementia's daily new failings. They've enlisted Kate to stay with them and help out – she's a graduate who needs time to think, and brings the same enthusiasm tinged with faint desolation that she presumably brought to volunteer WWOOFing on organic farms, or to her postponed trek to a career. Kate's less willing, more emotionally implicated shadow is the couple's son Stephen, who enters his family home in a still deeper gloom. He's separating from the wife his parents never liked anyway, and this failure only solidifies his deeper failure to be a success in his parents’ eyes – to graduate from being worried about to worrying about them, even as they sink deeper into old age.
Despite the bleakness of the story, it’s suffused with a gentle wit that means it seldom slumps completely, while Alice Hamilton's direction manages the impressive feat of ensuring that a play that centres on two elderly people sunk in two easy chairs never feels static. And although the themes – aging, family ties, marriage, love – are timeless, this play feels like it could have been written yesterday, or even next week. Kate is a particularly contemporary creation, right up to her blue dip-dye. She’s footloose, her Scottish law degree left behind in a drawer, a tried-on and discarded costume as useless as an old Brownie uniform or out-grown trainers. Eleanor Wyld’s performance combines faintly hapless affection for Edie with real sharpness and feminist anger at Stephen’s flaws.
Stephen’s fascinating too. He's an outsider, even from the familiar fictional school of social awkwardness – Simon Muller's mild, but perpetual unease in the role is so much more uncomfortable to watch than slapstick antics or comic faux pas. His agonising joke about Hell – told to his father who, watching his wife's painful decline, has a nearer idea of metaphysical sufferings – has all the directionless, mirthless length of a sixth-former’s powerpoint presentation. Although physically vulnerable, Edie and Arthur still have silent, parental power; Arthur (Robin Soans) to quietly damn Stephen’s jokes with his stolid silence, and Edie to surprise, and resist. Linda Bassett’s performance as Edie beautifully captures dementia’s excruciating mix of lucidity, even sharp-edged wit, and dreamy immersion in endlessly repeated stories. She’s able to reminisce “I wish I’d tried LSD. We should take some now!”, to experiment with the safer transgressions of Ottolenghi recipes and falafel, and remark, with poignancy, that mornings seem brighter, even though there’s more light in the middle of the day. But then she returns, again and again, to moments that are more like images – a woman in a wedding dress on a beach, no shoes.
Simon Gethin Thomas's brilliantly judged lighting enfolds the stage in constant murk, in contrast to the brightness of Edie’s memories; the light-level familiar from old houses with small windows that, somewhere in the 1950s, took “cosy” as their decorative watchword. Francesca Reidy's design shares the same ideals, but tips softly into the abstract, with wall-shrines framing groups of memories or tasks; a wedding photo framed by lace, an antiquated group of store-cupboard staples. Just as each set of items is rendered notable only by its framing on stage, this play’s characters are all utterly ordinary, and the events that unfold commonplace; Barney Norris's feat has been to make this ordinariness compelling.
Kate and Edie sing together, but alone, ‘Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz’ – they’re in different world, aligning for a brief moment of song. Norris’s play is all about these fleeting alignments – visits where these lives come together and points of common ground are found, even for a moment. And in a production this good, few connections are missed.
photo | ©Mark Douet