A young couple are viewing a flat and bicker about whether it’s right for them or not. It sets the tone for Michael Frayn’s gentle linguistic comedy which delves into a rather philosophical question of location and time.
Haddrell’s intelligent direction of a seldom performed work should be reason enough to give it a chance.
Phil (David Hubball) and Cath (Serin Ibrahim) occupy the stage for the majority of the time, peppered only by their soon-to-be landlady Pat (Kerry Joy Stewart), who steals scenes with her matriarchal Cockney interruptions to their nest building, recounting tales of her family and previous tenants. Left alone, the couple struggle to decide the most mundane of choices. Should the chair be by the window? Is there a significance about the bed being in the middle of the room? Will the plant thrive next to the bathroom door? How they were still together by the end of Act II remains a mystery to me.
In its first outing at the Donmar Warehouse 25 years ago, Here received a battering from the critics. It fared only marginally better when the author reworked the script for a revival at the Rose in Kingston in 2012, with the acerbic Charles Spencer of The Telegraph describing the play as Frayn’s “theatrical dud”. So why then, out of the canon of great works by Frayn, did director James Haddrell pick this one?
Perhaps because Frayn asks some tricky questions in his writing. Where is ‘here’? Wrap that all up in the concept of time and you’re crossing an Einstein Rosen bridge as Phil decries holidays as pointless to get away from ‘here’ if when you get there, ‘there’ becomes ‘here’. Haddrell and his designer Nathan Hughes do give a charming nod of detail to this, decorating the walls with art such as Dali’s melting clock in The Persistence Of Memory and Einstein’s famous tongue-out black-and-white portrait. If nothing else, you have to applaud the attempt to get under the skin of this Pinteresque play.
Hubball and Ibrahim admirably achieve the task of breathing life into two characters that have no backstory. We never learn who they are, what they do or why on Earth they are together in the first place. Indeed the only glimpses of the outside world seem to be the trickles of rain on the solitary window and an abandoned bike with only one wheel which Phil brings upstairs for reasons that are not apparent. But if the lovers are all about the here and now, landlady Pat is firmly stuck in the past; her cutting anecdotes comically juxtaposed with Phil and Cath’s saccharine squabbles. Stewart’s Pat remains unchanged throughout the passage of time – always in the same skirt and cardigan, and always with her hair in curlers. Pat, perhaps, has somewhere to go but never does.
Unlike Phil, Cath appears to mature in character over the course of the show; swapping her baggy jumper in Act I for more business-like attire in Act II giving us tantalising clues about life beyond the front door. Though neither strike me as ideal dinner guests, Cath is at least adaptable whereas Phil remains a stubborn adolescent, fighting over territory and willing to get into an argument over the meaning of a word.
There’s plenty to laugh at and Haddrell’s intelligent direction of a seldom performed work should be reason enough to give it a chance. Just don’t expect to have much sympathy for a couple that spend their entire relationship in disagreement.