Joan and Izzy have been friends for decades, waltzing together in a slow and circular dance as the years pass and age takes its toll. Joan marries while Izzy remains single, childless, seemingly content, but the connection between them remains there, as delicate yet unshakeable as a cobweb.
Produced by Nutshell, the company behind last year’s Allotment, this is an ostensibly site-specific work, staged in a harshly lit church function room with trestle tables arrayed around the walls and bunting strung about the place. The audience are led along a damp Edinburgh back alley, down a flight of steps and made to participate in a beetle drive. The first few minutes are a frenzy of dice rolling and silliness, which is at odds with the melancholic tone of what follows.
This is one of several pieces on the Fringe this year about watching the person you love slip slowly and achingly from your grasp. Jules Horne’s play is gently moving rather than wrenching, it doesn’t hit you in the pit of your belly, but it is both touching and elegant in its sketching of the relationship both between the two women and with Joan’s husband, William. He feels that Izzy is too close to Joan and he alternates between resenting her presence and acknowledging her importance in his wife’s life. There are layers of understanding, spoken and unspoken, between all three and it is these that the writing draws out, drifting back and forwards from the past to the present in a lapping, wave-like way. The performers make no attempt to play older than their years. They present these character as they were at the moment which tied them all together, in their bright 1950s dresses, the tangle of their future ahead of them.
Joan’s decline is also subtly handled. She starts to forget things – names, words, the reason she went into a room – while other moments remain fixed in her mind like a photograph. A wheelchair sits at one side of the room, but it is sparingly used and Kate Nelson’s production resists the urge to pile on the pathos. Yet in Clair Dargo’s eyes it is possible to see the awful blossoming realisation that what’s happening to Joan is far more than just everyday forgetfulness. Mary Gapinski and Stephen Docherty are similarly measured in their performances, but it’s Dargo’s fear and frustration that makes the deepest impression.
Despite the choice of venue, this is in many ways a conventional traverse staging; the space is not that imaginatively used, though the limited capacity, the sheer physical proximity to the cast, means you can see every shadow of confusion play across Dargo’s face and every flash of longing in Gapinski’s eyes. The participatory element is also abandoned after the first few minutes and the harshness of the lighting bleaches everything. And just as Horne starts to sheds light on the depth of connection between the three, the piece ends abruptly, like a lid being closed on a music box.