While the Bush’s main theatre is whisking off audiences to Imperial India in Guards at the Taj, its studio space is offering up a two-hander closer to home in every respect. Barney Norris’ While We’re Here may not be a ticket to anywhere more exotic than a Havant living room, but its characters are so tenderly drawn and poignantly performed you almost feel you’ve popped into a new neighbour’s for tea.
Alice Hamilton’s delicate production is as intimate as James Perkins’ tiny box set. A lonely lounge on the South coast is fleshed out by prosaic cream sofa and matching pouffe, cluttered shelves and a retro stereo leaking out The Beautiful South’s "I’ll Sail This Ship Alone". The lonely wicker hearts hanging here and there foreshadow events as Sally Ferguson’s lighting smoothly charts a few weeks in the lives of one-time lovers, Eddie and Carol.
The chuckles flow freely from the opening scene as Eddie showcases his maverick approach to changing a duvet. 20 years on from their last encounter and Carol has happened on Eddie shivering in the park, inviting him to stay with her until he’s back on his feet. Carol is a team leader for electoral registration and single mother to one grown-up daughter who is conspicuously absent. Eddie is a drifter and scrapman who has been living abroad for eighteen years, now struggling with homelessness, depression, and a recent break-up. As their dialogue probes, meshes, and gently clashes, their brief history together – and the unspoken possibility of a future – is weighed against the wear and tear of time. Their nervous attempts at easy conversation endear us to them quickly. Yet even as we root for them we are gnawed at by the sense that companionship for these two, after so long alone, is as bleak a prospect as a holiday to the moon.
Andrew French’s Eddie is a vigorous joker at first, all toothy grins and madcap ideas for a future career in rewilding (“Isn’t that,” Carol asks, “when they reintroduce wolves to Scotland?”). Beneath French’s oddball charm we see a haunted vulnerability, raising the dark spectre of an unknown entity coming into Carol’s sheltered life. Is he taking advantage of her generosity, or is he genuinely seeking help from the one person he has left? Humour bubbles at unlikely moments in a fine balance of actor and text. Eddie keeping his belongings in a few carrier bags, for example: “It’s sort of waterproof,” he says, as Carol doubtfully replies: “I don’t really know if it is, love.” Or ruminating on the likes of Josef Fritzl: “I don’t know how there could be very many men who want a woman in their basement. It would actually be very difficult…you could never have anyone around.” Meanwhile the proof of Portsmouth’s progressing charm is summed up by the words: “Award-winning car park.” It’s this sort of awkward dialogue that Norris does so well – offbeat and funny and undeniably sad all at the same time.
Tessa Peake-Jones’ Carol is the aching heart of the piece, with her pitiably small life and small house that she may only rent but proudly keeps. Cheerily attempting to extol the virtues of Eddie’s itinerant life, she says: “And they make you a target for burglars, houses. No one ever burgled a tent.” Carol may be middle-aged but Peake-Jones brings a delightfully girlish energy to their first flirtations, and a powerful disassociation in later scenes (a remarkable study on the sudden exhaustion that stress can bring). When lipstick on a coffee mug reveals Eddie has lied about a female visitor, her wrath is reproachfully maternal and sexually possessive at once. Finally, a scene in which she leaves a message for her neglectful daughter is unbearably painful. The lights came up on tissues dabbing at eyes.
There are echoes of Mike Leigh and Chekhov here, while an inspired, ghostly reference to The Flying Dutchman is reminiscent of the work of Conor McPherson or Jez Butterworth. This is fine company for Norris to be in at his young age. Those looking for the thrillingly uplifting will not find it here. But at 70 minutes it is a featherweight play that packs a punch for anyone that has ever suspected the bruising effects of life and love has left them unfit for companionship. To quote Carol: “I might have had all my fun.” While We’re Here also touches on racial identity, the isolating effects of technology, and the Sisyphean job of accessing mental healthcare in the UK. Norris’ humour and humanity sets him out as one to watch. A production that swells your heart that little bit bigger.