“My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage/ Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age.” These lines by G.K. Chesterton are read by a young man and painstakingly explained to the impatient girl he loves, preparing for an exam she is bound to fail.
The folly of youth, and its power to reverberate through the years, colouring vermilion relationships which should have faded into rose-tinted companionship, is central to this work, where retirement is not a peaceable descent but a sharp incline, marked by quarrels and the emergence of old secrets.
Hugh Leonard’s Tony award winning play, seen here in its first U.K. revival in over 30 years, is a complex and intelligent one, set in two interlocking time periods; the present, inhabited by the soon-to-retire civil servant Drumm, his wife, and an elderly couple they have been long estranged from, and the past, with the same characters young and yet to marry, kicking their heels in a small Irish town. As Drumm, Hugh Ross gives a fine, acerbic performance as a retired civil servant consumed by bitterness, painfully aware of the cleverness that sets him apart from his contemporaries, but unable to apply it to his fraught and fractious interactions with them.
The play focuses squarely on the development of his character without ever becoming a monodrama, though, with the depiction of his youthful love for Mibs, later known as Mary, cutting through the years, haunting his eventual marriage to Dorothy, later known as Dolly, acted with a perfect blend of solicitousness and frivolity by Judith Coke. The minute social divisions of small-town life are beautifully conjured here, the desire for companionship in lonely old age in constant combat with a prickly mindfulness of social differences. What Drumm sees as the ‘low’ side of rural Irish culture is represented by Mary’s husband Lar (Robert Lonsdale), lively and trouble-making in his youth, before aging into the disreputable Kearns (Neil McCaul), and earning the reputation of a village character through little more than a sociable disposition and a disinclination to earn an honest living.
Drumm’s inability to hold back his tongue, expressing his contempt for the man who genially stifles Mary, motivates the action of the play, as the other characters unveil in return secrets held in quiet complicity.
This excellent production is sparse and simple in direction, with actors sitting on the floor and bustling through imagined rooms on an empty stage; there is a sense of the sparse landscape beyond, the sea never far away. Full of one-liners and gentle wit, the play is still serious and grounded, and compassionate even as it brutally exposes its central figure. Drumm opens the play with a guided tour of the scenery round the village; by its close, we’ve seen the mental landscape of an intriguing set of characters, and beautiful it is too.