Southwark Playhouse, London – until 25 November 2017
Guest reviewer: Jeanine Jones
Picture a Zumba instructor warming up to the beat of a modern rap song, rolling her hips from side to side on an exercise mat. If you now imagine that she’s in her sixties, cassette recorder and shopping trolley in tow, that might give you a clue to the essence of Trestle, a new play by Stewart Pringle. Directed by Cathal Cleary and winner of the Papatango New Writing Prize 2017, Trestle sees its world premiere at the Southwark Playhouse, London this month.
Trestle centres around retirees Harry (Gary Lilburn) and Denise (Connie Walker) who are each navigating lonely lives through bereavement and emotional abandonment respectively. Their paths converge at their local village hall in rural Yorkshire, where Harry, a stalwart supporter of his community, has learned to immerse himself in activities to cope with the loss of his wife.
As Chair of the Billing and Improvement Committee Harry meets his match, and counterpart, in Denise, who marches to the beat of her own drum (and rap cassette) and believes life begins in retirement. Her devil-may-care, glass-half-full outlook disarms the traditional Harry, and before long we see him in shorts and a vest, vigorously star-jumping with wild abandon – a particular highlight of the play.
The characters form a friendship over the shared responsibility of wrestling with the trestle table – a task every hall hirer will relate to – and their penchant for a cup of Yorkshire tea and a round of sandwiches. The innocence and intimacy of the friendship is conveyed as Harry and Denise share their foil-wrapped lunches, giving the play plenty of emotional heart – we begin to fall in love with the characters who are ‘a perfect team’. The lighter, comical moments build to a dramatically charged scene in which the characters debate Harry’s perceived threat to his beloved community, showing the brilliant acting skills of the two leads.
Gary Lilburn is utterly endearing as the the ‘meat and two veg’ Harry, grappling with technology and ‘The Google’. He perfectly portrays Harry’s vulnerability through a façade of strength, as a man who is going through the motions in the face of bereavement. He has never had the courage to bang his e-bay bought gavel to chair his meetings, and we are rooting for him to do so. Through Lilburn’s performance we gain an insight into getting older from the male perspective – his character has learned to avoid mirrors, and when he finally does he sees ‘an old man’. The fact that Harry goes to a garden centre café on his own once a week, just for somewhere to go, is a poignant depiction of dealing with loneliness for older people in our society.
Connie Walker gives an extremely well-rounded portrayal of the spirited and childlike Denise, down to her posture, Yorkshire accent and the ankle socks which don’t quite meet her leggings. Her performance remains honest throughout, and Denise’s huge compassion and understanding of Harry makes the ending extremely heart rending. She ultimately helps Harry move on with his life, and is the voice for all women dealing with the emotional abandonment of their husbands.
Stewart Pringle’s brilliantly funny writing and earthy, uncompromisingly honest voice as the playwright – ‘I have to go for my wee’ – are at the heart of Trestle, a gem of a play, which brings the themes of bereavement, loneliness, abandonment, getting older and living life to the full to the forefront. The dialogue, shared entirely between the two characters in one location, encapsulates the dying art of conversation and building a friendship through face to face communication alone.
The set design by Frankie Bradshaw helps us believe we are a fly on the wall in a village hall, and the lighting design by Johanna Town creates the stark, honest world of the play – this is coupled with Pringle’s device of using blackouts at the end of the short scenes. The music by Richard Hammarton, played only during the scene transitions, adds to the emotional depth of the story and helps create a truly moving piece of theatre.
Trestle is a timely reminder that life must be lived to the full regardless of age: ‘We’re not here forever. You’ve got to take a chance from time to time. Sometimes you’ve got to see something you like and grab hold. Don’t let it go’. The play gives older people a much-needed voice – ‘you’re not supposed to have an opinion if you’ve got a bus pass’ – who remembers what life was like before in-person community was by and large replaced by social media.
I have recently met two women, on separate occasions, who have lost their husbands after fifty years of marriage, and are having to deal with loneliness and bereavement. It is evident that older people are becoming marginalised and isolated as technology takes over, as a society it is profoundly important that we not only take care of the older generation, but strive to create and maintain in-person community. I personally hope that watching Trestle will encourage younger audiences to take the time to talk to an older person, offer them their seat on public transport and be mindful to show them respect, in the knowledge that none of us will remain young forever – though young at heart.
For older audiences the resounding message of hope is that life is still worth living, or as George Eliot famously said ‘It is never too late to be what you might have been’.
Trestle runs at the Southwark Playhouse until November 25th.