Friday, 28 October 2016

Half Life

John Mighton’s tough and tender play raises some timely questions about love, freedom and old age

Written by Georgina Brown
Elegant, 80-something Clara (Helen Ryan) can’t remember if it’s her turn in a card game, but recalls in minute detail the brief wartime affair she had with a serviceman named Patrick, who knew all about polyhedra.

Patrick (Patrick Godfrey), a newcomer at Clara’s care home, once a brilliant mathematician and a codebreaker during the war, contentedly pretends to play cards with this beautiful woman who has lost part of her mind to dementia. He may or may not be the same Patrick, but these two people have fallen in love, and who cares?

Well, a lot of people, actually. Tammy, Clara’s delightful and dedicated carer (who may also be helping herself to Clara’s wallet) encourages the romance that has brought a Georgina-Brown-colour-176distinct luminosity to Clara’s face. Anna, Patrick’s daughter, is delighted to see her old, sometime alcoholic father so calm and happy. But the home’s vicar refuses to leave the couple unchaperoned and Clara’s devoted son, divorced and lonely Donald, insists his mother is ‘too vulnerable’. 

Canadian John Mighton’s tough, tender and deservedly award- winning play raises some fascinating and timely issues. Such as the fact that none of us would survive if we remembered everything (apparently, forgetting facts is one of the major differences between a human being and a computer), so losing information is as important as retaining it.

The trouble is that we can’t necessarily select which things to remember. Another resident, unhappy, angry Agnes (Holly de Jong), is haunted by the memory (possibly false) of her father’s abuse, and yet she has forgotten how to do a jigsaw puzzle. And why is it that the innocence and naiveté that is so beautiful in a child becomes so tragic in an old person? More important, at what point – if at all – should an adult child become their parent’s keeper and start laying down the law about whether they can drink alcohol or have sex? If old people are not given the freedom to enjoy a whisky or to make love with a consenting adult, then surely a so-called care home is a prison.

Janet Bird’s design for Nancy Meckler’s polished, superbly performed production has those depressing high-backed chairs only ever seen in care homes hanging upside down from the ceiling or projected from the walls, cleverly suggesting Clara’s disorientation while not making it alarming, just a bizarre rearrangement.

One of the strengths of the play is the balance between the ambiguity and unresolved facts – memories, suspicions – and the unequivocal genuineness (which is not the same thing as rightness) of the characters’ emotions. Provocative and powerful stuff.

Until 5 November at the Ustinov Studio, Bath: 01225-448844, www.theatreroyal.org.uk 


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