Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 12 November 2022
Peter Gill’s new play has a melancholy beauty about it; it’s a sort of poem as the veteran playwright and director engages with age, regret and memory. The one-act, hour-long piece, performed with understated delicacy, recreates a world in memory drawn by two old men in cardigans sitting side by side in care-home chairs.
Christopher Godwin’s Alex, the shakier of the two, is in the foothills of dementia (we will only discover that as it goes on). He is remembering a day by the river in Hammersmith in the early 1960s and the young man he loved then. In Gill’s lovely, sparely evocative language he pulls up before us scenes of the historic river as part of his own history. We see the leaking sandbags at high water, the houses and pubs and alleys, feel the urgency of lovemaking that day and the low red sun over the Surrey shore.
Ian Gelder’s Colin, next to him as he addresses that long-ago lover, seems to doze as Alex reminisces, then rouses and brings out eloquent memories of his own: of Dean Street and Chez Victor and Soho square, and a scrubby vivid world of postwar intellectual Aldermaston-march bohemianism and its people: a woman novelist, BBC intellectuals, the detail of houses. To and fro they go, remembering. Two pretty young men, younger selves or younger lovers, join in from the side of the stage as if conjured by memory: blithe and vivid, they create in single lines fragments of past scenes as they break into the rolling mist of reminiscence.
Slowly we start to see that these two old men are not of the same couple, though they lived in that same past world. Ideas, arguments from their heyday emerge; social justice versus individual freedom, cheap clothes for all versus anxiety about sweatshops, infidelity, the Cuban missile crisis… deaths, memorial services, being gay when it was difficult, meeting lovers again after years, days and years fading onwards, decades passing.
But now in life’s last waiting-room they are one another’s comfort, lightly touching or holding hands, Colin solicitous of Alex’s confusions. Modern reality arrives to visit the old men; Alex’s son Andrew (Andrew Woodall) is an unhappy irritable middle-aged man , constantly mistaken by the old man for his dead brother. Colin’s niece is Claire (Claire Price), brightly female and practical. They are people of today, still out in the 21c world, and talk a little between themselves as the old men doze. Yet they are irrelevant to the central emotional drive of memory and love and long lives. Andrew suddenly objects when the two old men hold hands – how dare his father act gay! – and is shocked that they asked for a shared room in the institution. Claire says tolerantly, kindly ’they are friends’.
Their day moves towards dinner time. “How useless regret is’ says one. The young men, phantoms, speak of one another’s beautiful eyes. Alex gently kisses Colin’s cheek.
jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. to 12 November