Trafalgar Studios, London – until 8 July 2017
ANOTHER KIND OF ETERNAL TRIANGLE
I have a taste for plays about the years between the wars. The WW1 anniversary saw some fascinating contemporaneous ones, often at the Jermyn. There is rich material in it: the weight of grief, survivor-guilt, the shadow of the next war only 21 years later, and not least the new awareness and independence of women who had done tough wartime jobs in munitions or nursing, but then found that the great toll of young male deaths left them as “surplus women” with no family future. So it was irresistible to see how Richard Bean, in our own time and best known for sharp comedy, would deal with it in this two-hander set in 1929, as strangers meet in a bedroom with all this weight of history and sadness still heavy upon them ten years after the Armistice.
It succeeds, in the most curious of ways beyond both its comedy and its setting, creating by the end a perennial meditation on the triangular relationship between love, sexual desire, and procreation. In an age when so much fiction centres on zipless hookups which try to avoid both emotional entanglement and pregnancy, what we have here is a fictional – but not improbable – situation where a rogue Dr Trollope (unseen) arranges insemination by anonymous sex for women esperate for babies, whether widowed or with damaged husbands.
Our young woman (Claire Lams) is an independent widow of ten years who drives a munitions lorry. She waits in her lodgings for the appointment, nervous, checking the mirror, smoothing the eiderdown. The man (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) is youngish, bowler-hatted, with an umbrella over his arm. He prissily removes his tiepin, lays down the doctor’s rules about no-kissing and no-real-names. The woman is the brighter spirit, chatting and bantering; he, a sober and at first unreadable veteran of these excruciating encounters, wants less talk. But he has to explain why he was not enlisted, is not dead… his very survival proves too much, at first, for her to carry on.
Yet they do, because to separate feelings from sex is never as easy as moderns like to think. We see a development over months of encounters: the back-story of her lost husband and brief teenage marriage, a weird, unsettling glimpse into the man’s motivation and his damage. It is alternately touching, absurd, thoughtful, painful and poignant . Anna Ledwich directs, drawing a whole reality from the two characters. You can laugh with the banter – Lams is superb in her evocation of spirited, awakened, hurt womanhood – and wince at the psychological scars on both of them, and on the reflection that no war is every really over. The angel of death has long, dark wings.
It is a curiosity of a play, unexpected and impossible to forget. I’m glad I went.