If love is ultimately a celebration of life and a desire to share that joy with another, why is it that we attach such a stigma to discussing love when we reach our twilight years? The older we get, the more we are expected to be settled; conform to societal pressure; be long married, long past sex and the lustful equivalent of a wrinkled old prune. Sonja Linden’s Roundelay sticks two fingers up to this generalisation whilst sticking two fingers down its pants for a good old rummage around. That’s what the Ringmistress (Clare Perkins) has to settle for, anyway, as she navigates through everybody else’s sexual liberation, whip in hand to keep proceedings moving.
Anna Ledwich’s direction keeps the focus firmly on the stories themselves and the connections between characters. This may be an old and faded circus, Moi Tran’s set a combination of vintage and past its best, but if the acts are anything to go by, it’s not done yet. The majority of the circus act-based segues between story lines are somewhat redundant – bar some impressive aerial silk work from performer Anna Simpson there isn’t much of note in the acrobatic concept of the show. Perhaps the idea of performing in the round, under a big top, as the Ringmistress runs circles around the acts and draws a cyclical link through their stories, is sufficient. Diane Alison-Mitchell ensures that every movement has meaning, even if this best applies to the scenes themselves.
The story itself revolves around seven key characters, each with two linking vignettes – this is a real ensemble piece. Whether it’s young, muscular, exotic Daniel (Elan James) or loving husband turned adulterer Frank (Vincenzo Nicoli), the men on the whole here are full of bravado and confidence. Chris (Roger Alborough) is the exception to the rule and as such gives the most powerful male performance. Ridden with guilt and despair over his declining wife, he tries to escape into a fantasy world of sexual liberation, only to find that his closeted secret is too painful to finally let out. Despite the setting of an experimental gay sex club, he can’t bring himself to let go with Daniel, the muscular youth who kisses him more out of respect than lust. Alborough’s shameful breakdown is a stark reminder of the difficulties faced by a more conservative older generation, often disallowed from truly being themselves during their youth.
The women present alternative sides of the coin, the greatest happiness and the greatness sadness that Roundelay offers. Bette (Holly de Jong) realises her inexorable mental decline early on, noticing how much she is forgetting and completely unable to do anything about it. De Jong transforms herself in a matter of seconds from a woman at the start of this slippery slope to the frail, fragile, frightened husk of her former self. She simultaneously engenders an overwhelming empathy from her audience and a restrained anger from husband Chris (Alborough) who is simply trying to manage her daily condition. Neither can change what is happening which makes the frustration all the more pointless and emotionally charged. The irony that Bette made her career as a history teacher, now unable to remember anything but her past lovers (that don’t include husband Chris) is a poignant highlight in Linden’s script.
From a sad story to a happier ending as the wheel spins and lands on Evelyn (Annie Firbank). Widowed for 11 years, she has come to an acceptance in her life that it’s not a crime to be happy when your other half has passed on. The guilt, the anger, the overbearing sadness at Frank’s (Nicoli) death still lingers, but is tempered with the discovery that it’s ok to also be content with what you have left. Linden portrays the comfort and tenderness in the couple’s marriage in the form of a dream – nothing particularly fantastical, simply lying in bed, reading the Sunday papers and having some pretty energetic morning sex. The audience are treated to true intimacy, albeit only fictional, before it’s lost in the fabric of time. Contrast this with Firbank’s first scene, chatting bluntly to lodger Daniel (James) about how she misses the touch of a man, misses sex. Being older doesn’t remove those urges from you and Firbank practically hums with the need to be desirable, to be touched, to orgasm and experience spine-tingling joy. Two complementary sides that showcase Firbank’s mastery of her craft.
Roundelay bookends the show with second-hand glitz and glamour delivered by performers who are past their prime. But that in itself is also the point – who has decided that these individuals are to be discarded, archived away and forgotten about? Linden tells us that ageing is inevitable, but becoming devoid of wants, needs and desires is absolutely not.
Roundelay is on until 18th March 2017 at the Southwark Playhouse. Click here for more details.