Peter Souter’s debut play, which began life in the theatre’s Downstairs space in 2013, appears at first to be standard rom-com fare. Juliet – funny, angry, beautiful – walks in to her new flat to find Alex – geeky, witty, handsome – already moving in thanks to some off-stage confusion with an estate agent.
Sex and romance follow with the inevitability of a Rowan Atkinson cameo in a Richard Curtis film. While some of its genre trappings do feel tired, Souter changes things up a little in his structuring of the story. Hello/Goodbye looks at the whole arc of a relationship by focusing on its first and last hours. In between those two hours are ten years of love and, latterly, infidelity, all revealed as the couple prepare to go their separate ways.
We don’t need to see the wrenching trauma of betrayal, all the anger and the failed attempts to patch things up exist in the interstices between acts one and two, exposed only through the sourness of a couple bewildered by their transformation from lovers to divorcees-to-be. Under Tamara Harvey’s direction the characters maintain a degree of distance from each other for all but the most passionate moments. At the outset they simply don’t know each other. At the end, after all those years, they seem to be no closer to understanding each other at all.
Designer Lucy Osborne’s set accentuates the realism which pervades Souter’s story. Just as Juliet and Alex grow up and fall apart, so the thrust stage evolves from a bare new flat to a bare old one. By act two, smart new décor sits uncomfortably alongside a melancholic collection of odds-and-ends – the flotsam and jetsam of a sinking marriage, slowly drifting apart. Indeed, individual objects and their symbolism are a powerful theme throughout the piece. The story’s grand themes of birth and death, love and divorce, life and decay, find their expression in just the kind of mundane and peculiar clutter that really does pepper our own lives.
Alex’s personality is made manifest in his own collection of oddments, and in his regular deployment of geeky pub-quiz facts. Shaun Evans plays the character with a charming goofiness, his physical tics and deadpan delivery perfectly capturing Alex’s fastidiousness and charm. Miranda Raison, too, shines as Juliet. Her masterful timing make sure that even at Juliet’s shrillest it’s hard to dislike the character.
Hello/Goodbye’s realism tends elevates it above lesser rom-coms to an extent, though Souter still borrows a little too much from the genre in the end. As it reaches its conclusion, the play becomes a little fantastical, something which jars with everything that’s gone before. That said, this is a piece about a couple who manage to keep talking even after gross betrayal and what appear to be genuinely irreconcilable differences; perhaps anything’s possible. I certainly hope so.