Park Theatre, London – until 13 February 2016
AMNESIA AS A NEW START?
In a hospital bed lies Michael: Alistair McGowan, motionless in a coma, we learn, for three weeks. His mother Carol (Maggie Ollerenshaw) holds his hand, has been sleeping in a chair and tending the flowers on his nightstand. Enter – with competing flowers – the third player Paul (Daniel Weyman).
Younger, in his lunch-hour from a banal job, Paul is awkward in the frozen presence of the mother, appalled that she is lighting a fag. “Oh” she says airily “He’s been breathing in my cigarettes since he was a baby, he needs familiar things”. Hers is the first shot in an ongoing battle for possession of Michael.
For Paul has been, we gradually learn, living as Michael’s partner for ten years. Carol demurs at his offer to take the night watch with a pious “He’ll want to see his mother’s face first” , and the young man’s bald “Why?” gets a good laugh. He observes that actually, Michael only went to see her every three months. Carol ripostes that this is because Paul alienated him and (we shall learn) stopped him from painting in favour of paid work. Although she loves her son , “We mothers do reserve the right to be VERY disappointed”. She refuses to give up the chair. Paul clambers defiantly on the bed to embrace his lover.
Peter Quilter (who wrote the marvellous End of the Rainbow) has placed this timeless mother-in-law conflict in a piquant situation, because when Michael wakes all three are disconcerted to find that he has lost nearly eleven years of memory. He thinks it’s 2005, that his mother has inexplicably got wrinkly, that he is still a painter, and most unnerving of all, he doesn’t know who Paul is. McGowan, so recently a stellar Jimmy Savile in this theatre, evokes the puzzlement and repressed fear of the situation brilliantly; not least because he has, from the first moments of consciousness, revealed Michael as a brittle, sarcastic, amusing and defensive personality (very much his mother’s son, actually, which is satisfying).
And so the battle goes on: Carol keen that this should be a fresh start for him, because she reckons Paul made her bright son beige and boring. Paul tries to get his baffled former inamorato up to date with the alarming measure of trolleying in ten years’ worth of copies of The Guardian. Between that and the blasts of ward-TV footage of disasters, bank crashes, Ebola, and Ruby Wax, the poor man has a task ahead of him.
Quilter raises interesting philosophical and psychological questions: might it be good suddenly to believe oneself younger, still hopeful and vigorous before the attrition of maturity and compromise? And how real are any of our memories anyway, since we edit all the time? The dialogue slows a bit in handling this, but the solidity of the three characters and the finely balanced sarky charm of the invalid hold firm.
The second act sees a sub-Kandinsky mural being half-finished on the ward wall (actually, its debt to the master’s 1925 Yellow Red Blue is a little too close, given all the lines we’re hearing about the excitement of fresh creativity, but let that pass). It also brings an unexpected, emotionally heroic gesture by Paul. And with a series of memory flashes comes a resolution which I for one found genuinely moving. There is even compassion for Ollerenshaw’s enjoyably bitchy Carol, who betrays at the end the real bleakness of her need to control an adult son. Matt Aston directs, deftly (though a bit more trimming would help) and it’s good to see, once more, the brave upstart Park offering new work. Never dull.
box office 0207 870 6876 to 13 Feb