As a child, I was frightened by what seemed like a desert of amusement in an old person’s life, incapable of understanding how a diet of crosswords, television, and memories could sustain life. Stewart Conn’s 1967 play, first staged at the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre, offers two contrasting insights into the lives of the deserted and dispossessed elderly, filling the open, incomprehensible spaces with petty grudges, fears and memories.
Martha and Amie are elderly neighbours in a tenement earmarked for demolition; across a thin wall, both sit fretting in decay, ambivalently waiting to be transplanted to new homes, or just a home. They inhabit resident designer Alex Marker’s set that, in true Finborough style, is a masterpiece of highly detailed, mid-century realism – but less typically, it brilliantly parcels out the small space, discovering two flats, and an attic above, in a way that feels natural, and no more cramped than its setting suggests.
Though physically close, the women are near strangers to each other, their only social interactions with authority figures, and professional repairers of people and homes; a social worker, a priest, men responsible for mending the leaky roof. Above them, the attic is an almost sacred space – afflicted with Old Testament floods, and a shrine for Martha’s deceased husband’s telescope, and, reluctantly, for Amie’s family Bible. Initially, its hard to imagine how the claustrophobia will be relieved – but the interweaving strands of plots and episodes, never fully combining into one directional narrative, spike the tired and institutional present with the vital and frightening past.
Martha (Jenny Lee) is a beautifully observed, wryly witty presence, halfway between woman and bundle of rags – before she was chair-bound, fussing over her canary, she was tied by her husband’s inability to find a job, his dangerous money-making schemes, and powerless under dropping bombs. The remembered wartime scenes are electrically shocking after the dim present, lit only by Alice Haig’s brilliantly funny turn as an immaculate volunteer visitor – some of the play’s strongest moments take place beneath dropping bombs and immobilising grief. Martha’s memory-made husband reappears in her flat, still young and strong to her aged and cowed vulnerability – he’s a shifty everyman, barely slipping out from underneath the establishment boots to his face, and threatened by local heavies, whose threats still frighten Martha off from protesting her living conditions years later.
Amie (Eileen Nicholas) is an altogether different presence than shuffling, unkempt Martha; pin-neat in her matching dress and pinafore, she carefully arranges her flat – and her will, devoting time to the allocation of her assets, their magnitude kept cannily uncertain.
Ross F. Sutherland’s visiting priest is particularly good, just barely suppressing undercurrents of frustration and cynicism, like an ingratiating cousin at a rich uncle’s deathbed – but the territory here is more familiar, earning its resonance not through social commentary, but through quietly observing the machinery of carefully compartmentalised loneliness.
The mundane, patterning dialogue speaks of Stewart Conn’s career as a poet – beautifully observed, it needs care to make it sing, but sometimes the performances are just a little bit too mannered and stylised – especially as some of the supporting members struggle to keep hold of their accents. And although the play moves fluently between scenes in the left and right hand rooms, refreshed by a large cast of unrepeated intruders into the tenement world, there’s still a kind of langour, a lack of economy, about the earlier scenes in particular.
It might not be contemporary, but somehow there’s little here – bar Susan Kulkarni’s irreproachably period accurate costumes – that doesn’t still feel true. Abruptly shifting in tone and time, the longeurs of this fog-shrouded world of the elderly and lonely are justified by the fading memories of its long-lived, long-forgotten inhabitants – sometimes, the clouds part, and clear insight and social criticism breaks light on their breaking, but still intact spirits.