Writer: Stephen Bill
Director: Lindsay Posner
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
A 2012 survey revealed that there is a much higher probability that people over 60 will die on their own birthdays than on any other day of the year. In Stephen Bill’s play, things are not looking good for Ida, whose family are gathering round to celebrate her 86th, bearing greetings cards, gifts and wishes for a still longer life.
Ida (Sandra Voe) sits in her wheelchair, swathed in blankets, her vacant expression betraying the weariness of having had indignity after indignity piled upon her through illness and misfortune. Family members talk to her as they might talk to a baby in a crib and talk of her as if she was not in the room. “I’ve had enough, I have” Ida cries out and we believe her.
Daughter Katherine has baked her a cake, daughter Margaret has made her a trifle. Katherine’s husband, Geoffrey, sits dutifully watching on; Margaret’s husband, Douglas, goes off to mow the lawn; Ida’s grandson and lodger, Michael, fusses over her, while next door neighbour, Mrs Jackson, is ready to spring in and give a helping hand on hearing the faintest knock on the wall. The arrival of the family’s black sheep, youngest daughter, Susan, kicked out by Ida 25 years earlier, sets the first cat among the pigeons.
The elephant in the room is, of course, death or. more specifically, euthanasia. Bill’s character-driven play is more light drama than dark comedy and Lindsay Posner’s production skips nimbly between its pathos and humour. The set, designed by Peter McIntosh, realises perfectly the old-fashioned cosiness of a living room that has been occupied by the same person for, perhaps, too long.
Saskia Reeves’ matronly Katherine paints a perfect picture of suppressed anguish, contrasting with the self-obsessed hypocrisy of Wendy Nottingham’s Margaret. Tim Dutton’s Douglas calmly cuts through family nonsense with common sense reasoning, while still finding time to flirt with Caroline Catz’s Susan, who readily flouts convention. Jonathan Coy’s Geoffrey makes everything worse as he tries to pour oil over troubled waters; he is as instinctively a pragmatist as is his son, Michael (Leo Bill) instinctively angry, without knowing exactly why. Completing the list of spot-on performances, Marjorie Yates’ redoubtable Mrs Jackson is a touching tribute to a sadly dying breed of devoted neighbours.
As Benjamin Franklin pointed out, death (along with taxes) is a certainty (and Bill’s well observed play explores how and why that certainty remains a taboo subject in family life. Some of the moral dilemmas raised in the play are complex and potentially dry, but the writer presents them with a human touch that makes them engaging, chiefly because he invites us to recognise its characters as exaggerated versions of members of our own families.
Runs until 17 March 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan