Everything about Billy is disruptive, from the lurid shirt he’s snatched up to wear on the run to the devastating confessions (as rusty yet as urgently dangerous to the present day as unexploded – or rather exploding – pieces of decades-old ordnance) he makes in his brother and sister-in-law’s unassuming, muted peach front room.
Oliver Cotton’s play Daytona – a transfer from the Park Theatre – initially has the feel of a gentle marital comedy set in the 1980s. Joe (Harry Shearer) and Elli (Maureen Lipman) make meticulous plans for the next few days, badgering each other in what is clearly a relentless, almost automatic, ritual (that admittedly perhaps takes a few minutes to warm up).
When, after thirty years of no contact, and prompted by a deadly encounter on Daytona beach, Billy – played by Cotton – brings his high-pressure past-driven world into Joe and Elli’s well-ordered and domestic obsession with the near future, emotions, actions, and decisions, become sharply determined by the present. Cotton chose Daytona as a title because he liked the homophony with ‘Atonement Day’, suggesting that this day for the trio is a Day of Reckoning. Billy’s revelations are at once intensely focused on the tightly-knit menage a trois onstage, and vastly political, prompted by the ‘European Nightmare’ of the Second World War.
The cast’s gentle naturalism is very compelling; humour arises not with the brashness of a cymbal but gently seriatim like the ripples of a calm Florida sea before being submerged into the momentum of the skilfully-written dialogue.
Daytona consists of several longish and surprising monologues, which generally do not feel contrived because they are framed as recollections, memories, or urgent pieces of news, and are responded to with plausible artlessness. Shearer especially has a great range of you’re-wasting-my-time-but-I’m-listening expressions during Billy’s long and revelatory rant, which he delivers despite Joe wanting to get some sleep before the senior dance competition.
This production is partly preoccupied by age (Billy is desperate to kill an ageing enemy before he dies naturally), in a way that could translate into a submerged comment on the paucity of roles for actors in their 70s and beyond (‘how many men in their 70s are still even working?’, we hear, early on). Daytona has been billed as a ‘love story for old people’, and with an unbroken rhythm the cast present their characters as alive to the dislocating and transformative capabilities of love. Set in their ways in some senses, they nevertheless actively explore the potential for drastic romantic change. Many reviewers claim to have predicted Billy’s first and central revelation regarding what happened on Daytona beach, but I challenge you to see it coming. And though I’d urge you, conversely, not to expect a massive surprise regarding the disclosure of Billy, Elli, and Joe’s domestic history together, there are shifts and surprises in the characters’ relationships right up to the end of the play.
When Joe and Elli dance in front of Billy, Shearer and Lipman create a palpable sense that the (no doubt tirelessly and tiresomely practiced) steps have come newly alive for them under his gaze. This is a wonderfully understated moment that draws on the rich and complex texture of their past lives together and the urgency of their need to perform this act right now (due both to the impending dance-competition and the imminent possibility of one of their number being murdered in an electric chair).
The later scenes develop a suspenseful idea that Joe still has the power to transform his relationship with Elli, after several decades together, and that the pain and exhilirating progress of love does not end with youth or marriage.
The cast handle the scenes of trauma without melodrama; the everyday business of scorched Chinese takeaways and the need to sleep before dance competitions believably absorbs and sometimes overwhelms the impact of Billy’s revelations. The set, with its cutaway front room in front of a large cityscape complete with towerblock dwellings suggests that this is one story among many, gesturing towards a wider picture of humanity filled with ingots of intensely personal drama.