The success of David Renwick's TV series One Foot In The Grave gives persuasive evidence that situation comedy can accommodate serious misfortunes without feeling the compulsion to resolve them before the end credits role. Vanessa Brooks attempts a similar combination in her third play (first staged in Scarborough last summer), but cannot cushion the jolts as she shifts between registers.
The return after 17 years of emigrés Dougie and Petula to visit their old East End muckers Bob and Marion propels the basic comedy of petty social embarrassment: the latter couple's high-rise flat is all Dralon suites and phoney plate trophies, whilst the naturalised Aussies drip Chanel shopping bags and talk smugly of their kidney-shaped swimming pool.
This premise is developed in two directions at once. As one might expect, the past disgorges its dark secrets (both criminal and sexual), and everyone gets to exchange home truths with everyone else. It is a minor novelty that this drunken unburdening begins midway through the first rather than the second act, but Brooks has to make room for her weightier material on the death of community spirit and the suffocation of hope in the building block environments of the 1960s and '70s (she wrote the play when living in such a tower block in Shadwell).
These two strains jostle awkwardly with one another; comedy, rather than being applied lightly to pierce the gloom, grows broader as the play progresses. In particular, Petula – who begins the evening in Helen Atkinson Wood's characterisation as an agreeably ghastly example of mutton dressed as designer lamb – degenerates into a spangled wreck whimpering about double therapy sessions. Her decline is matched in nature, though exceeded in volume, by that of Colin McCormack's pugilistic Bob, whose self-worth seems to reside entirely in his bellow.
Real communication only takes place between mother and daughter Marion and Pen – Liz Crowther as the mousewife that finally roars and Liza Hayden as a nicely inarticulate teenage rebel without ant dress sense – but by this point an invisible banner reading "Author's message" has effectively unfurled above the action.
Brooks's notes of the play speak of "leaving people with the realisation that there is always hope – and the potential for change." On the contrary, its minor-key resolution in which the family tentatively pulls together seems hollow and foredoomed. The one hope of material betterment – a bequest of the valuable Victoriar postage stamp of the title – has been squandered, leading to the inescapable conclusion that philately will get you nowhere.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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