THE HEART OF THINGS Jermyn St Theatre SW1

POST COALITION TRISTIS…
The best line in this rather overstuffed play comes from Keith Parry as Bob, a magnificently slow-thinking lummox. In the corner of a scruffy Norfolk kitchen Bob is the blinking, half-aware witness of an emotional scene in which a drunk, despairing middle-aged English teacher relates a failed proposal, underage sexual blackmail, personal confusion, schoolyard violence and a crashed career . The teacher’s sister and nephew stand transfixed with horror, and in a brief silence bearded Bob surfaces in his corner with: “Ah. All goes on down London, don’ it? Fancy a bit o’toast?”. It’s a beautiful bit of bathos, an unkind reminder of what certain impatient GPs put on patients’ notes – NFN. Normal for Norfolk….

Which is, of course, unfair. But such flippant thoughts do tend to surface during in Giles Cole’s play. His last one here, The Art of Concealment , was an excellent and well-researched biographical imagining of Terence Rattigan (same director, Knight Mantell). But maybe the freedom of pure fiction was a bit too heady this time. For in its two-hours space, and in the trajectory of Peter the teacher (Nick Waring) over his sister Ros’ birthday celebrations, Cole hurls in questions of sexual identity, paternal post-traumatic guilt and contempt (Ralph Watson is a splendidly curmudgeonly old bastard father in a wheelchair), plus potential incest, thwarted ambition, self-publishing, rape, and the question of whether dim Bob will ever finish his model ship after twenty years (it’s a truly terrible prop: the mast is all wrong). Oh, and there’s an advance condemnation of Michael Gove’s education reforms, because the action is set in 2010, during the discussions which formed the present Coalition, and Peter has brought along a fierce Tory PR lady called Jacqui, who he now wants to marry because he’s tired of being gay. But he is really, deep down, longing for his big sister. Frankly, if Peter is on Facebook he’ll need something more comprehensive to post up than “It’s Complicated”.
This overstuffing is a pity; and so is the character of Jacqui, played with a rather retro, overarticulated 1930’s brittleness by Amy Rockson and never allowed to develop into anything beyond a clumsy plot device. On the other hand there are some wonderful performances, especially from Patience Tomlinson as Ros, the countrified sister whose life has been a trap between curmudgeonly father and dim pointless Bob, by whom she has a nice son William . Tomlinson conveys without fuss multiple layers of sadness and warmth and hurt and daily decency, and your heart goes out to her. Ollo Clark too, as William, nicely evokes a generation – one I know well – of citified educated youth emerging, laughing slightly shamefacedly, from dull rural homes and returning with a gentle patronizing kindness. As for Waring as Peter, he does everything possible with his melodramatic unhappiness, confusion, and back-story. But the cast are streets better, and more authentically credible, than the material. It’s always dangerous for a playwright to quote four lines of WH Auden in a scene: reminds you that the rest of the lines are not nearly so good. Except that one of Bob’s. That I treasure.

box office 0207 287 2875 to 4 April

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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