While We’re Here – Bush Theatre, London

Writer: Barney Norris
Director: Alice Hamilton
Reviewer: Stephen Bates

We hear a lot about the problems of the young, a fair bit about those of the elderly, but what about the middle-aged? Barney Norris’s 70-minute play, the inaugural production in the Bush Theatre’s brand new studio space, brings together two lonely people who are old enough to have regrets and young enough to start again, if only they could find a way to break free from the past.

tell-us-block_editedCarol (Tessa Peake-Jones) is a divorced empty nester, still living at her childhood house near Portsmouth, inherited from her parents. Her dull, featureless living room, as seen in James Perkins’ set design, mirrors her life, which revolves around going to work for the local Council, watching television and sleeping. She has taken the safe course, but Eddie (Andrew French) has driven along the rocky road. Raised in foster care and beset by mental health issues, he has drifted from job to job and become rootless.

The pair, lovers 20 years earlier, meet by accident at a bus stop and Carol invites Eddie to stay with her temporarily. Norris and the two actors capture precisely the initial awkwardness of renewing friendships after a long gap; Carol talks incessantly about her office, Eddie babbles on nervously about the otters of Ireland, the Arctic and the Amazon, both flash too many forced smiles at each other and their attempts at jokes show senses of humour that are now completely out of sync. Never mind, when the going gets tough, Carol can always break the tension by brewing a nice cup of tea.

Lines are drawn, as Carol makes it clear that the friendship can never be more than platonic, yet Peake-Jones suggests with great subtlety that this is not how she really wants it. Dictated to by routine and habit, she simply knows no other way, just as she knows no way to break free from any of the shackles that she has placed around herself. Eddie remains somewhat enigmatic, unable to stay grounded and wondering whether it is worth bothering to plan a future. He has exuberant bursts of optimism, but French never lets us forget that a deeply troubled man lies behind them.

Alice Hamilton’s unshowy production is steadily paced, allowing the quality of the writing to shine. Norris, a young writer, captures the essence of mundane lives and of characters much older than himself with great perception. His gentle and melancholic play is low-key, but it tells us to make the most of life while we’re here, a message that all ages can relate to.

Runs until 27 May 2017 and then tours | Image: Mark Douet


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