Rose Theatre Kingston, 1st March 2018
Stage comedies don’t always stand the test of time too well. Comedy is elusive enough in the first place and may often be more rooted than tragedy to specific times, places or events. Comedic fashion chops and changes and what is acceptable shifts with the zeitgeist. Repetition does not always serve it well. This is as true of comedy from the last few decades as it is from hundreds of years ago. If a comedy play wins an award, especially an award for “best newcomer”, than alarm bells should sound for any subsequent revival.
Stephen Bill’s Curtains from 1987 won many just such awards, and repeated the trick when it was revived in New York a decade later. Added to that it’s a comedy about death. Set in the West Midlands. The second comedy about death set in the West Midlands I have seen in the last couple of weeks after the Guildhall’s Schools splendid production of Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here. (Colder Than Here at Guildhall School Milton Court Studio review *****). Maybe this very specific sub-genre holds a special fascination for me. Hm.
So I approached this with trepidation. I shouldn’t have. This is, by and large, a very smart play, directed by Lindsay Posner, who I assume was keen to revive it, which should be playing to packed houses at the Rose. I may be biased, because it is on the doorstep, but I really do think that, despite having no Artistic Director, the Rose is astutely delivering some high quality, uncluttered, proper theatre, sometimes in collaboration, sometimes, as here I think, off its own bat. Maybe not quite matching the Orange Tree in terms of innovation but streets ahead of the safety first pap that the Richmond Theatre largely relies on.
It’s that old Ayckbourn-ian staple, the family gathering, (which didn’t work as well in my last visit here for Sam Holcroft’s novel Rules for Living, another “best newcomer” – Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***). It’s Ida’s (Sandra Voe) birthday. We are in her threadbare front room, courtesy of designer Peter McKintosh. She is stuck in her wheelchair with advanced dementia, her eyesight and hearing fading, surrounded by her two daughters, a splendidly po-faced Margaret (Wendy Mottingham) and a restless Katherine (Saskia Reeves and their respective husbands, the punctilious Geoffrey (Jonathan Coy) and the candid Douglas (Tim Dutton). Geoffrey and Margaret’s son Michael is also in attendance.
Now the somewhat gauche Michael is played by none other than Leo Bill, the son of the playwright. Do not be alarmed though, there is no nepotism at work here. Mr Bill junior is a fine comic actor as I know from his Bottom in Joe-Hill Gibbons’s characteristically bold Midsummer Night’s Dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Young Vic review ****). Now Bottom is funny. There is a clue in the name. And Shakespeare, who was good with gags, created him. Yet sometimes once you have done the donkey head and Titania fancying him, the belly-aches can ease up. Not so with Leo Bill who, with body, face and words, and a pair of tights, held the whole of the school-kid contingent in the palm of his hand, not to mention us old grumpers.
Dad Stephen Bill is probably much better known for his TV scripts than his plays, but it seems like he retired some time ago. So I think I can be confident that young Bill is here on merit; his performance certainly suggests so. The birthday party is completed by neighbour Mrs Jackson (Marjorie Yates), who, along with Michael who lives in the house, takes care of Ida, and, subsequently by a third sister, free spirit Susan (Caroline Catz) who is something of a black sheep, and winds Margaret up something rotten.
The fussing around Ida, drinks, sandwiches and cake are served in quick succession, and the importing of her reactions by the sisters, is spot on. It soon become clear though that there are tensions over how Ida should be cared for as she approaches the end, amidst the familiar, familial carping. This is the debate that lies at the heart of the play. How should families deal with with end of life, both practically and emotionally? As the population ages, and the cost of social care rises, this is, in turn, an increasing concern, as we have seen, for society as a whole. Mr Bill is a little guilty of shoe-horning various positions into the mouths of his characters, but the writing is still sufficiently airy to withstand this.
There is a fairly sharp tonal shift at the end of the first which sets up the argument in the second act, and which I shall refrain from describing. Suffice to say it works. There are a couple of incongruous moments which show the age of the play, notably some casual racism, a reminder of the mutability of comedy which I have remarked on above. Overall though this is a very well written play, keenly observed, darkly comic and with some trenchant argument. There is a hint of edgy, Orton-lite about proceedings, which is a very good thing, and Mr Bill has a handy knack of making his dialogue sound natural, often funny, but never “sit-com forced”.
Hats off to whoever thought to revive this.