'Goodbye To All That' review or 'These Werthers Originals aint so golden anymore.'
'goodbye to all that', Luke Norris
Royal Court Theatre, Monday 27th February 2012
Written for Culture Wars
|Grandson (Alexander Cobb) and Grandpa (Roger Sloman)|
Grandparents hold such a peculiar place in our heads and hearts, particularly when we are young. Remote enough to avoid the messy stuff in life, but close enough to provide warm and stable love, grandparents often survive, untarnished, in a child's perception. They are fluffy cakes, werthers' originals, whispy hair and endless summers. They are practically angelic. Luke Norris' new play, 'goodbye to all that', sets about debunking this stubborn myth and looks at the impact of grandpa, Frank's, late-life love affair.
If only Norris' play had stuck a little more closely to this brief, this could've been an unusual and quietly revealing piece. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with young writers (Norris' play kicks of The Royal Court's Young Writers Festival), the plot, in all its energetic ferocity, starts to erode the play, to eat it up from the inside out. Following a fizzing scene between Frank and his righteously indignant grandson, Frank resolves to leave 'grandma' and hook up with his elegant girlfriend, Rita. But, as Frank returns home one last time, he suffers a brutal stroke and his life – so full of new promise – is put permanently on hold.
This plot twist lends the play a little too much clarity and pushes the characters into unlikely extremes. Drooling and stooped in his chair, Frank (Roger Sloman – fiercely unapologetic) becomes a simple figure of pity, when he could've been so much more. His illness renders him too likeable. In contrast, Frank's wife, Iris (Susan Brown – predictably fierce and arresting) turns practically demonic. There is brilliant scene, on the eve of Frank's stroke, when he returns home, streaked in piss and unable to speak. As Iris, who now knows of his affair, cleans up her husband and guides him towards their marital bed, it is hard to say if she is helping Frank or herself. It is a gloriously compromised encounter. But, as soon as Frank is hospitalised, Iris' complexities are stripped away and, for much of the time, she is downright detestable.
Just as Iris becomes too mean, and too easy to dislike, girlfriend Rita (a beautifully dignified Linda Marlowe) grows too likeable. She is saintly in her restraint and, for all ghastly insults Iris throws at her ('Shame they had to cut off [your husband's] face'), Rita refuses to rise to bait. Again, things could've been so much messier. It doesn't help, either, that Norris devotes a sizeable chunk of his play to slagging off the NHS and the pitiful state of care homes. All important arguments, no doubt, but they are not the arguments this character-led play is trying to make.
Still, there are a few golden lines, which offer glimpses of what this play could've become, if only the plot had simmered down and the characters had stretched out. Susan Brown's, Iris, is by far the most enigmatic character and her dialogue is packed with probing ideas and uncertainties. At one point, she reprimands her grandson, 'He's 70 years old. He doesn't need love. He needs warmth'. It is a wonderfully packed line, which reminds us that love is a doggedly mercurial concept, which changes as often as we do.