SO LIFE GOES BY, WITH MELANCHOLY BEAUTY…
Is there anything more healing, more reassuring of human kinship than the sound of an audience sighing together, murmurously anxious, fondly touched or momentarily afraid for imaginary strangers in a pretend room? There were moments, in Barney Norris’ tender meditation on life, love and memory, when it felt so intimate that you wanted to reach out a hand to Arthur, Edie, Stephen and Kate in their solitary home, with two armchairs under suggested beams and a World’s Classics subscription bookcase behind them.
This is one of those heartfelt family plays which the Bush suits well – Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink, Rory Kinnear’s The Herd come fondly to mind. Like those it is an author’s first full-length play, and a treasure. Yet it is the simplest of situations. Arthur and Edie – Robin Soanes and Linda Bassett – are in their 70s, Darby and Joan in the farmhouse where chickens cluck outside and time has stood still, contentedly, since the departure of their only child Stephen. He opted for another kind of life as an insurance salesman.
But Edie is in early dementia. So Stephen (brilliantly evoked as a slick, tense, unhappy character, bravely dislikeable at first) has arranged a “Homeshare” lodger Kate: a recent graduate, a bit daffy with a streak of blue hair and no direction yet. As Edie’s condition worsens, harsher decisions must be made to solve the simplest and saddest of problems: life. And as Edie puts it “to get through it all ok, get to your grave without much trouble”.
Bassett plays Edie with such truth and grace that her curtain-call normality is almost a shock. She has much to work with: Norris has an uncanny knack of evoking the poetry which can emerge from those wandering on the borders between amiable elderly wittering and dementia. She will be suddenly sharp (uncomfortably for her son at times) but then from her occluded depths say something so fine that you almost envy her. Late on, immobile in her chair, she watches sunlight. “Outline of the window crossing that stone, that’s the whole earth spinning, whole lives changing. You can watch it all from here”. And in one of the heartshakingly fond joshing conversations with Arthur (whose farmerly solidity is utterly convincing, and I know a lot of them) – she reminds us that she was always fun. She muses on whether to booby-trap the house for those who might live there after their death, planting fake ghosts and creaking floorboards. Or on how being “a despot” would enable you to keep the shops open late.
It is in part a sorrowful meditation on the gap between generations – the parents rustic, stable, simplehearted, churchgoing believers who never asked much of life; Stephen the child of the ‘70s, anxious, brittle, impatient, mercantile, thwarted without understanding why. And Kate, today’s girl, speaking lightly of therapy and empathy but still adrift.
But Norris does not let the parents off the hook. Slowly it becomes clear how difficult the relationship always was between the awkward Stephen and his Dad, and how neither parent ever understood him; and how painful is the contrast with Kate – not a settled adult yet, but one enchantingly able to bond and sing Elvis with old Edie. Eleanor Wyld gives her solid reality and immense adolescent charm, clumping in her Doc Martens, sweetness in her half-grown heart.
And in all the best plays its themes expand beyond their lives and the room to a reflection on life itself, fleeing past while we do something else. As Edie says, you can never pin down a moment which defines what we’re about. And when dementia closes in, you “can hardly tell which of the millions of lives I imagined I might have lived eventually turned out to the the real one. They are all as vivid and vague as each other”. Shattering.
BOX OFFICE 020 8743 5050 to 10 Jan