There is a moment in Sheridan’s ‘The Critic’ when Mr Puff and Mr Dangle are watching a play-within-a-play about the Spanish Armada. Sir Christopher Hatton and Sir Walter Raleigh are at Tilbury Fort, and Raleigh is deep in acres of exposition:

“Raleigh: Philip, you know is proud Iberia’s king.

Hatton: I know it well.

Raleigh: You know beside his boasted armament –“

To which, Mr Dangle quite reasonably interjects, “Mr Puff, as he knows all this, why does Sir Walter go on telling him?” – “But the audience are not supposed to know anything of the matter, are they?”

This exchange rose irreverently to my mind several times in Gary Henderson’s two-hander ‘Skin Tight’, a portrait of obsessive love set in New Zealand in the 1950s inspired by the Denis Glover poem, ‘The Magpies’. Tom and Elizabeth are farmers, lovers since childhood. Their relationship is based on a burning physical passion that also includes an element of sado-masochism. At the start of the play, Elizabeth is about to leave, and the next 60 minutes pass in a combination of lustful power-games and reminiscence of the twenty-year (?) relationship, in which each tells the other things that they would certainly already know.

The story is teased out indirectly: school friends-turned-sweethearts, first sexual experience, service in World War II, a failed farm, an infidelity, an estranged daughter, Kitty, who is expected but never arrives. Fragments of information, evocatively told, cannot quite disguise the banality of some of the back-story, nor poetic diction the clichés, e.g. of going off to war. The mundane bickering about toothpaste tubes and underwear in the sink also undermines the aspiration to poetry, which belong more in sit-com land.

Where the production does come to life is in the physicality of the relationship. In addition to the director Jemma Goss, Dan Styles is credited as Fight Director and Clare McKenna as Movement Director. This plethora of direction pays off. Angela Bull as Elizabeth and John Schumacher play physically as one, responding convincingly in the moment to each other during games which at times look positively dangerous. The music that accompanies most of this is distracting, signalling too obviously like an intrusive film score.

If the obsessive sexual desire convinces, the back-story doesn’t. The play is meant to be set in the South Island of New Zealand, but there is little sense of place. Or indeed of class. One of the dynamics of the play is that Tom married beneath him: His parents told him, “Her family aren’t educated or well off. She knows you have a farm coming to you, knows you have connections.” But she has a rather careful RP delivery, he a strange and uncertain accent that I think is meant to be Scouse.

Elizabeth is leaving. Elizabeth is dying. She pleads for him to lay her out himself. It should be more moving than it is, and if it does not finally tug the heartstrings, it is because the writing has not given us what we need to make the kind of emotional commitment that the actors have made to each other. In short, a rather flawed play which is dragged up to a different class by the quality of the physical direction.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

Charing Cross Theatre

Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris

★★★
Jermyn Street Theatre

Return of the Soldier

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

Eye of a Needle

★★★★
Rosemary Branch Theatre

The Trial of the Jew Shylock

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

In The Heights

★★★★

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The Blurb

An ordinary couple with an extraordinary love relive their darkest secrets, deepest passions and heart-breaking truths. Throughout all the moments of doubt that life has thrown at them, as long as they can be together, they wouldn’t change a thing. This is their final opportunity to say all the things they never had the chance to say before... -

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