Writer: Stewart Pringle
Director: Cathal Cleary
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
In a quest to bring younger audiences to the theatre, older generations are often underrepresented on stage; Potentially, this could be a problem considering that the older generation is theatre’s core audience. To partially rectify this imbalance, Trestle, the new show at the Southwark Playhouse, explores ageing and the loneliness that it can sometimes bring. It’s a rom-com for those in their golden years.
Stewart Pringle’s play, which won the prestigious Papatango award for new writing this year, is definitely more realistic than Simon Stephens’ rom-com, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, currently playing in the West End, which is centred on an older man’s relationship with a much younger woman, although there does seem to be an age-gap between Pringle’s two protagonists. And Trestle offers much more hope than Caryl Churchill’s devastatingly bleak Here We Go, which looked death and old age straight in the face, at the National two years ago.
Harry is retired and widowed, but chairs regular meetings for a sinecure of the council at a Temperance Hall in Yorkshire. Not consciously lonely, his days comfortably timetabled with whist on Tuesdays and a roast on Sunday, Harry meets Denise, who teaches Zumba in the hall after his council meetings. In a series of very short scenes, we see them every Thursday as they help each other dismantle the trestle table and clear away the chairs for her class.
The early days of their friendship are touchingly played out, helped by the remarkable acting by Gary Lilburn and Connie Walker. Harry is pompous, but innocent, stiff, but lovable and, with few words, Lilburn lets the audience see beyond this very proper facade. He is like a character from Last of the Summer Wine, and this is meant as a compliment. Walker channels a bit of Julie Walters in her role as Denise; With great comic timing and some marvellous facial expressions, Denise’s facade takes longer to crumble.
Both actors enjoy the verisimilitude of Pringle’s writing; The dialogue consists mainly of phrases and half-sentences. It is often very funny, too, with lines such as ‘ I’m a widower I’m not Dracula’. They are also given a lot to do by director Cathal Cleary, as between each of the 21 scenes, they are collapsing tables or rearranging chairs, chores that become mildly distracting.
The play works best when the laughs are at the forefront. When the story takes a darker route, it does seem to drag little, even with its 85 minutes running time. Without this turn, Trestle would be too frothy, but it would be useful if Pringle could retain the laughs somehow. However, Johanna Town’s lighting design perfectly matches the fading years of our unlikely couple.
Frankie Bradshaw’s evocative set is also a star here, with its walls painted in municipal colours and its pipes leaking rust. Hopefully, this play could travel to halls and community centres just like this, garnering audiences who frequent these places rather than traditional theatres. There’s a sense that, with the issues it raises, this play will be most effective out on the road. But for now, it fits perfectly at Southwark.
Runs until 25 November 2017 | Image: Contributed