By Alan Bennett
Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Monday 27th October 2008
I have absolutely no idea how to categorise this play. It was certainly funny; we were amazed at some of the things we laughed at in this play, including a disabled chap with a plate in his head, the washing of a dead body, someone peeing through a letterbox, obvious poverty, etc. It was also very dark in places, and although there was a surreal air to the suited folk who took the house, and in fact the whole street, off to a museum situated in a park, complete with forgetful old woman, the line between realistic and surreal was so fine as to be almost invisible.
The set was the sitting room of an old back-to-back, with the door on the left, kitchen door next to it, and stairs next to that. It seemed ludicrously small in the vast space of the main stage, which added to the fun, and presumably made it easier to take it apart at the end. There was a folding table with two chairs to the left of the door, a sofa between kitchen and stairs, and to the right was the chair that Wilf, or Dad as he was mainly called, sat. He had been knocked down by a hit-and-run driver, so couldn’t walk very well and had a plate in his head. He kept his porn stash behind his cushion, and split his time between reminding Connie, or Mam, of whatever she’d forgotten, praising his daughter to the skies (a PA who was actually a whore), and bad mouthing everyone and everything else, especially the son he claimed he didn’t have, and who’d left them many years ago. Mam, played by Alison Steadman, could have lost a memory contest against a goldfish. I lost count of how many times Wilf had to remind her that Linda, their daughter, had gone to Sweden. The joke had a massive payoff though – when Linda arrived back unexpectedly, it turned out she’d actually gone to Swindon.
So far, it’s been a fairly recognisable picture of family life in those kind of houses, and in any period from the fifties onwards. The play was first produced in 1980, and we reckoned it represented the 1970s, but still seemed as if it had been written yesterday. The attitudes are so old-fashioned, but the references are to the 70s, and the feel is very up-to-date. Quite a remarkable achievement, and perhaps that’s why the play seems to be doing better today than it did when it was first produced.
A letter arrives from the council. They’ve been knocking down all the old houses and re-housing the occupants, but now they’ve realised that they’re wilfully destroying the evidence of a bygone age, and so they want to study the remaining inhabitants so they can preserve a record for posterity, or some such reason. They want Mam and Dad to allow an observer into their house, a lady who won’t speak to them but will record what goes on. Mam decides to let her in, and it’s obvious the woman is actually a man in a grey skirt and jacket. (S)he takes a seat by the table, crosses her elegant long legs and stays completely silent throughout. Of course, Mam and Dad can’t avoid talking to her, and despite claiming to carry on as normal, their behaviour changes noticeably. The best china comes out for a cup of tea, for example, and Dad’s language improves dramatically. Mind you, it isn’t exactly a normal day they’re having, what with Linda coming back and announcing she’s off to Saudi Arabia to marry a sheikh, and Dad getting hit on the head by a local thug (who brings him his porn mags, but who also likes using the letterbox as a urinal). The thug hits him too hard on his metal plate, and Dad goes unconscious. When Mam returns from doing her shopping soon after (she forgot she wanted a tin of salmon, so got some loo rolls instead), she thinks he might be dead, and gets one of the neighbours to help her deal with the body. Played by Carol Macready, this formidable lady informs Mam that if he is dead, they’ve only just missed him, and then they decide to wash the body, as the local undertakers is now a paving slab place. David Troughton, who played Dad, had to put up with two women groping him all over, taking his clothes off and putting him on the floor. No wonder Wilf gets an erection! It’s all very tastefully done, but the sight of the two women wondering if this reaction is normal with a dead body, while there are two observers sitting serenely, taking it all in (the neighbour brought her own observer), was utterly hilarious.
Eventually Mam decides that she’s had enough of the old ways, and that the Co-op can take care of it. They put Wilf back in his chair, and Mam checks on the “situation” from time to time. It’s about this time that Terry, their son, reveals himself. Of course we guessed who he was before this, and Connie makes it clear she recognised him as well, though her memory problems mean she doesn’t remember this a short while later. Linda comes back, in a temper, as she didn’t make the shortlist for the sheikh’s new wives. She brings another man with her, her latest client, I assume, and there’s a lovely touch when Mam assumes he’s another one of the observers, and comments on how chatty he is, not like the others. This time, Linda’s off to somewhere else, I forget where, and then Wilf revives. He’s only been unconscious after all. But now he finds he can’t move – the blow to his head must have paralysed him. Connie acts like he’s just making it up, or that it’s temporary, but we can see it’s real, and this is when the play gets really dark.
Terry explains that “they” want to take Connie and Wilf away from this place, and after reassuring them both many times that’s they’re not being put into a home, he tells them they’ll be living in the same house, but with a lot more comfort, in the museum in the park. Visitors will come round and see how bad things used to be in the old days. But Wilf has to be taken to the hospital instead, as he needs to be taken care of, and he’s both terrified and frustrated that he won’t get into their promised new maisonette. As the suits remove the building, wheeling it off to the wings, Wilf is taken off in a wheelchair and Connie appears, dressed up to the nines, ready to go to her “new” home. The play ends with each of the three main characters isolated in a spotlight, Wilf still in his wheelchair, telling us how their lives are now. Mam still thinks she’s in a home, Terry spends more time with Wilf, who seems to be reconciled to his situation. It’s a downbeat ending, but it works.
There were great performances all round, and some wonderfully observed dialogue, especially when Terry, alone for a moment or two, tells us what he sees in the house. It’s as if Alan Bennett was talking directly to us, and it’s understandable that the play could seem more autobiographical than it is. So a fine night out, then, even if I’ve no idea what type of play I was watching.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me