It’s a strange sound: the damp rabbity snuffling of a roomful of people attempting to hold back tears. It’s a sound that runs through much of Frantic Assembly’s moving new production, twining with the music: Abi Morgan’s play is often incredibly tender and touching, but there are times when it feels a bit mechanical in its methods, a little too insistent on making the audience weep.
As a screen writer, Morgan’s work includes both Steve McQueen’s Shame and recent Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady, and – political subject matter aside – her latest work for the stage shares some common ground with the latter film in its delicate exploration on the erosion of aging.
A married couple, Margaret and William, are shown at two points in their life: in the early years of their marriage, after their emigration to the US, and in what turns out to be their last days together. The optimism of youth slowly seeps out of them as life’s many small disappointments take their toll. Their new life in America isn’t as glittering as they’d hoped and though they both want to have children, they never come. Margaret takes a job, against her husband’s wishes, and both of them toy with the idea of having affairs. These scenes are interlaced with those of them at a later point of their lives. The elder Margaret and William have led a comfortable, if childless, existence; they have come to terms with the hand that has been dealt to them and now face the prospect of life without one another
Some of the most piercing moments are wordless. Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett allow the couples to catch glimpses of each other across time. Siân Phillips, who plays the elderly Margaret, is shown dancing with Edward Bennett, her husband as he once was, bearing each other’s weight and leaning into one another. The four performers, pyjama-clad, tumble in and out of each other’s grasp; clasping each other, clinging to each other, but unable to hold on for long.
The cast all give well-judged performances even if the script doesn’t give Bennett and Leanne Rowe, as the younger Margaret, quite as much to work with. Philips’s performance is the most wrenching; at one point she is shown trying on a pair of once-treasured shoes, but she’s unable to walk in them and the frustration and anger she feels at her frail and disloyal body is painful to watch. Sam Cox, in comparison, exercises admirable restraint as the older William making his moments of emotional eruption all the more potent.
This is a production that walks a very fine line. Inevitably, given the subject matter, it has the capacity to tap into people’s personal experiences of loss and there are times when it feels too overt in its manipulation of the audience’s emotions. It deals unashamedly in sentiment and at times can feel a little thematically overcooked: there’s a lot of talk of dead things, ancient cave paintings and the linearity, or otherwise, of time. The movement sequences too, while beautifully executed, are occasionally distracting. The piece is at its strongest as a portrait of the way in which a relationship evolves over the years. The older Margaret and William have come to know each other’s habits intimately. The sense of familiarity which the younger William saw as a source of suffocation has become a comfort. These two people have reached a point in their lives when they have only each other – and now they must prepare themselves to part.