This is a play for all those who thought old age was all slippers, pipe and quiet nights in front of the TV. Concerning a trio of elderly characters living in the innocuous greenery of rural Devon, Peter Briffa’s play shows things to be rather less peaceful. If these three aren’t trying to bump each other off they’re eyeing each other up, although all this growing old disgracefully begins to lose some of its charm as skeleton after skeleton tumbles out of their cupboards.
The seemingly kind and friendly Barbara, forever brewing up a cuppa for her chummy neighbour Kenneth, finds her life disrupted by the return of an old friend following the funeral of another. Jim, who was evacuated to Barbara’s village as a boy during the war, is a smooth-talking silver surfer who quickly wheedles his way back into Barbara’s life, though whether this charming stranger is a dangerous conman or just a loveable rogue is up for debate. As Kenneth’s nose is put out of joint and long buried secrets start to resurface, things start to get ugly.
Briffa’s play, a little like his characters, seems to be the victim of a crisis of identity. Dramatically it raises a lot of questions. What lurks behind Kenneth’s straight-laced, ex-cop exterior? Is Barbara – portrayed with a light touch by Marji Campi that leaves her true character hovering tantalisingly in the air – a long-suffering saint or something far more sinister? And is this a comedy or a thriller or a little bit of both? Paul Blinkhorn’s slightly ambivalent direction doesn’t offer many clues, although it does yield up a good few laughs along this winding and sometimes rocky road.
It is difficult throughout to know who to believe, although Chris Bearne’s consciously slimy playing of Jim leaves little room for manoeuvre in our perception of this rather shady character. From a seemingly predictable opening scene, Briffa’s carefully plotted script undoubtedly succeeds in foisting a few twists on its audience, but the sudden jerks in the storyline at times feel a little like U-turns. A twist is all very well, but too many will start to make you feel a little sick, a nausea that threatens to rear its head as the second act spirals onwards.
There is plenty to entertain from some satisfyingly black comedy at the expense of growing old and a spot of humorous verbal jousting between Bearne’s Jim and David Forest’s indignant Kenneth, but this is all a bit undecided between farce and drama. An unsettling play – perhaps intentionally so – its tone is never quite resolved. It’s encouraging to see a play that shows old age as something more than just a slow and uneventful slide towards the grave, but the antics of Briffa’s three pensioners eventually become, like their medication, a little hard to swallow.