The final days of a sixty-year marriage are turned into a domestic comedy in the latest offering from playwright Richard Bean, of One Man, Two Guvnors fame, in To Have and To Hold, currently receiving its world premiere at Hampstead Theatre.
Amusing but but hardly gripping
Bean draws on his Yorkshire heritage, locating the action in Wetwang, where Jack (Alun Armstrong) and Florence (Marion Bailey) are trying to enjoy a relaxed life in their retirement village. Only their perpetual bickering disturbs the peace, giving the impression that they have coexisted under sufferance, tolerating each other’s idiosyncrasies, living with their annoying habits and forgiving their peccadillo’s in a long-running act. It’s an amusing daily show they put on and their world would be empty without it. Their exchanges, that might otherwise be regarded as abusive, belong to a different age of conversation and in particular what Bean calls the “brutal honesty” characteristic of the region.Beneath the words there must be a loving attachment that has kept them together over the years, although we see no outward evidence of this. The tirades and never broken by affectionate moments.
They receive regular visits from cousin Pam (Rachel Dale) and ‘Rhubarb’ Eddie (Adrian Hood), both of whom look after aspects of their banking and run errands for them. Much less frequent are the visitations from their children, who left home to attend university and then moved away completely. Rob (Christopher Fulford) pursues a writing career, shuttling between London and LA and Tina (Hermione Gulliford) manages a group of private medical practices in Somerset, while contemplating a move to Australia.
According to the British journalist, commentator and author David Goodhart in his programme note, the “play shines the light on an increasingly common British experience: how different generations within the same family can be divided by class and geography". His point that “most children today not only have different accents from their parents but live in different universes” is highlighted in the script. “Jack, Florence and Pamela have Hull accents,” insists Bean. Eddie, has a generic East Yorkshire voice with “esoteric pronunciations across a range of words”. Had the children not moved away they might have sounded similar, but they now they “have RP with no trace of Hull or Yorkshire”.
The local accents add to the richness of the characters who have them and in contrast make the RP pair less interesting. Fulford and Gulliford make a go of their underwritten parts, carrying a rather unnecessary detective drama of a subplot, but they are always second fiddles to Jack and Flo on whom the emphasis remains throughout. That storyline embroils ‘Rhubarb’ Eddie and gives Hood the chance to not only play the amusingly rather dim-witted allotment keeper with the country accent, but also to show how destructive false accusations can be. Dale is caught somewhere between these two extremes leaving. Armstrong and Bailey are at the heart of the wit and repartee, with the best lines and the biggest laughs.
The play is co-directed by Richard Wilson and Terry Johnson. On reading the script Wilson thought that the stories Jack tells of his time as police officer “needed 10% shaving off them”; now that could do with another 10% removed, despite being well-told. What gives warmth throughout is the realistic living room designed by James Cotterill with lighting by Bethany Gupwell that provides a suitably furnished and credible setting that enables the action to flow.
The affirmation that the play "tackles the prickly problem of dealing with ageing parents" is something of an exaggeration; it uses the issue as a source of comedy without saying anything profound or original about it. As for Bean saying, “My hope is to enthral the audience and illicit laughter,” he has scored only on the latter of those in a play that has old-style comforting comedy.