Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, London SW1
Opened 2 November, 2005

Thomas Hardy’s poems are so bleak. One says, of a past lover: “The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing/Alive enough to have strength to die.”  Well, Hardy was Joe Pasquale compared to playwright Gregory Motton. That gloomy Swede, Strindberg (several of whose plays Motton has translated), looks like Ray Cooney beside him.  Motton is unlikely ever to be known by his intimates as “Uncle Chuckles”.

This 90-minute two-hander involves a man and woman reminiscing about their affair which ended 30 years earlier.  Mrs Thomas (and her offstage husband) visits the dying Mr Smith in his old house somewhere on the coast.  He asks her to keep him company until the end; she both accepts and refuses, sort of, and they wage daily battles of emotion and memory, competing as to which has been left more damaged.

Michael Feast is a fine actor, and gets right under the skin of Mr Smith, who seems to nurse a deep need to have been permanently maimed by the affair.  Jane Asher, though, just eclipses him: her character is much cooler but more brittle underneath, trying on the contrary to prove that the past has not left its indelible scars on her soul.  And by gum, it’s heavy going. No coy hints here: it’s all painfully direct.

This is the problem. Much of Motton’s script sounds like an introspective sixth-former trying to articulate his feelings as if no-one else had ever felt them, and sounding ridiculous.  Some lines at random: “You like your crimes to be forgotten.” “I’m not the same person.” “It’s very nice that you mock now what you once loved.”   It’s almost all like that: striking right to the core of not very much.

It’s not a pleasant evening, nor easy viewing, but Simon Usher’s production is much better than the writing.  A personal confession, though: this is a “killing me softly with his song” play. If my secret heart were ever to write a play of its own, it would be just like this one: sombre, grandiosely self-pitying, juvenilely overwrought.  This play shows me just what I am and will be, and for that I hate it.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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