THE WATERS RISE ROUND TOKSVIG ISLAND…
There’s a bit of conflicted-critic syndrome here. Sandi Toksvig is one of the most amiable wits of today: fun, sharp, humane, sensible, an advocate for our sex politically and personally. I am glad she is writing for the theatre (this is the second, after Bully Boy). and equally delighted that in defiance of fashion she chooses here to focus on older women, using five very fine actresses beyond their first youth not only to depict both the raw deal women in their generation often had, but to celebrate their continuing talents, strengths, vicissitudes, and humour.
The conflict, though, is because when a play about a rarely-shown demographic has strong faults, it leave the whole idea open to hostile scoffers. And this one, which I saw at the final preview, has dismaying problems in the first half particularly. It is set in a ladies’ retirement home (rather like Noel Coward’s Waiting In the Wings) in Gravesend, with a severe storm surge and heavy weather (great thunder effects). On the first floor awaiting rescue, are four women. There’s Gloria the former pub landlady, Sheila Reid in henna curls and leopardprint onesie; May (Maggie McCarthy) a retired BBC World Service wartime technician in a wheelchair, dryly mocking her conventional, irritatingly Christian sister June (Joanna Monro). and Maureen (Rachel Davies), once an actress and now slightly confused but surprisingly physical when she gets to beat up a young looter (Theo Toksvig-Stewart, who will now be able to say that his professional debut involved being rabbit-punched and kicked in the stomach thanks to his Mum).
They are all tremendous: so is a fifth woman who is wheeled in later from some forgotten room and identified only as “St Michael” by the label on her cardigan: Amanda Walker gets one of the most surreally moving monologues late on, describing the not unpleasant cloudiness of her form of dementia and hinting in odd gnomic asides that she was once pretty senior, possibly in the Civil Service. No complaints there.
The problem arises, though, when in the unnecessarily slow establishing first half (Rebecca Gatward directs) credibility starts to stretch too far: no staff are around, no rescue comes as the water rises, and when someone does turn up to make them – very desultorily – get their things together for evacuation, it is a caricature: an improbable, exaggerated teenage temp in lurid leggings (Keziah Joseph) who utters a monotone of squeaky-shouty unconvincing street-slang. Maybe we are meant to be seeing da yoof of today through the eyes of these old ladies. But it is never easy to evoke a very annoying person without annoying the audience – directors of Amadeus have struggled with this for years – and frankly, here it fails. And if we are meant to believe in the urgency of the rising water below, it goes on far, far too long.
I cheered up after the interval, and began to see how it could be a properly entertaining and thought-provoking play, because as the improbabilities grow more surreal – the women decide to build a raft onstage, using knowledge from their earlier lives – those improbabilities don’t matter because we’re moving towards Beckettland. And as we learn more of their hinterlands, the strengths of Davies, McCArthy, Monro, Reid and Walker can shine, relating lives never fully realized because of the way things were for women. There were bad or dull marriages, being gay before openness, being sidelined, bossed about, undervalued. There is a good passage too when the whining teenage Hope says that their generation fucked up the world especially for her, a young black woman who “voted Remain” though she appears to know nothing much about anything beyond herself. So June quietly recalls the 1952 smog, the deaths, and her burning urgency to get to work. Then settles down with a lead pencil, some wire and a loudspeaker to build a radio to get news of the storm.
So it picks up, and there’s a triumphant apocalyptic ending. But there’s peril in slowness of the first half – despite Toksvig’s good gags, which in the programme we are told were whittled down . It would help to put some back, prune a bit, and have a serious rethink of Hope’s lines. But on tour, who knows? Things grow. And the five women will be recognized, with rueful affection.
box office 0208 174 0090 to 12th then touring nationwide with ETT.ORG.UK \