If any criticism can be levelled at Tom Holloway’s immaculate play it is only that it will break you. You will leave the theatre in pieces, but those pieces will be immeasurably better for the experience. And No More Shall We Part is a work of such accuracy and insight that its observations and conclusions would seem almost cruel were they not delivered with the resounding humanity and sensitivity embodied by this magnificent production.
Pam is dying of cancer and her husband Don cannot bear it. She has chosen to end her own life rather than let the disease break her body and the indignity of a slow and filthy death break her spirit. The choice that she has made, and the act of choosing and embracing death rather than have it catch her on a stumble, is tearing Don apart. Holloway manages an agonising lovers’ quarrel a yard from the cemetery, a terrible and jealous breakup where Don feels cuckolded by death itself. He bombards her with recriminations, ‘I think you want to leave me’, and they ring awfully true. This is the dying process with the sentimentality burned out by the visceral, clenching horror of abandonment and profound loss.
We see their relationship in its final days, but its reality is undeniable and the couples history stretches effortlessly back in the imagination. Dom is vague and skittery, slightly broken but noble with it, and his senile fragility makes his impending solitude all the more unbearable. Pam, whose end is palpably close, masks her fear with calm and measured insistence. Don’s memory is failing as he grasps at the present, desperate to retain it, while Pam soothes herself with reminiscence. Their relationship breathes through this evident and truthful reciprocity. Don simply cannot live without her, a platitude here given its convincing reality.
There are moments in the production as weighty as any in modern drama: the sight of Don lying in the hall of his family home, camped outside the door to his wife’s bedroom waiting for her to slip away, is coruscating. The conclusion is brutal and tears come in great heaving gasps. Holloway’s play is not a weepy, it’s an emotional waterboarding.
A play this perfect – and it is perfect – is fortunate to have found a production that is every bit its equal. Bill Paterson manages Don’s regression into child-like panic with stunning control, his temper as uneven as his long-term memory and a great, primal, commonplace love backing him into a dreadful corner. His gruff scotch mumble rattles like an oak barrel over cobbles and he finds pockets of humour in the slightest motions. Dearbhla Molloy is revelatory. Her Pam winds up all of the pain and sadness and blind terror of death, storing it silently and placidly like a great spring. When she releases it the primal ferocity is overwhelming, and it explodes across the auditorium like a grenade. It’s a formidable performance.
James Macdonald directs with as keen an eye for detail and ear for the rhythms of married life as Holloway brings to the script, and he finds and impales the comedy as confidently as the ubiquitous tragedy. The use of venue technicians to openly assist the two performers by handing across or shifting props is an unexpected intervention into the play’s naturalist language, but it’s also strangely effective. The sound of a kettle boiling just offstage as Don waits anxiously for Pam’s latest prognosis is agonising. Hannah Clark’s design is a masterpiece of understatement, tracing the play’s parallel chronologies with the elegant use of a revolve. It’s a small matter in the scale of the play’s achievements, but here for once we see a revolve used in a manner which affords the act of revolution with a narrative and emotional weight. Some of the play’s most effective moments occur as the stage is gradually turning, as we see Pam alone at her family dining table, or Don standing impassively by her bedroom door.
And No More Shall We Part demands to be seen. It makes you want to call up everyone you’ve ever loved and remind them never to get old and never to die. Game changing? No. But it’s theatre like this that reminds you how well the game can be played and why we started playing it in the first place.