Alice is sprawled face down on the water-soaked tarpaulin. Her husband Michael sits cross-legged watching her. She’s dead, and Michael must move on, eventually. But what if he’s not ready to say goodbye? This is Living by young writer-director, Liam Borrett premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014. The two-hour play being staged at Trafalgar Studios this month is an extended and revised version of the original. Borrett’s play balances on a tightrope between comedy and heartbreak as it explores a goodbye between two lovers who have already parted ways.
How Alice died is never the focus in This is Living. Rather, the play follows Michael as he tries to make sense of his new life as the single father of Lily, and Alice as she comes to terms with the fact she will never again be a physical player in the family she co-created. Alice’s realisation is best portrayed in the scene that sees her hanging round Michael’s neck, leaning desperately into him as she deplores her own position and thinks about how lucky he is. Borrett presents us with two chronological timelines for these characters: the present period between Alice’s death and her burial, and the past period between the couple courting and Alice’s pregnancy. Within this surreal set-up, scenes from these timeframes are chopped up and we’re thrown between past and present conversations. Whilst this format is abrupt, jolting and sometimes frustrating as it swerves us away from one captivating train of thought to another, it is also appropriate given the untimely nature of Alice’s death. Jackie Shemesh’s lighting design aids these transitions, basking the past in a warm, cosy light then plunging the stage into dimly lit blues for the present.
Borrett’s characters are easy to like, and this is largely down to the casting of Tamla Kari as the exuberant Alice and Michael Socha as the timidly affectionate Michael. Both Kari and Socha master their half of the charming northern couple living in London; as a result, we laugh and cry when they do. Borrett’s script is funny, moving and loaded with meaning. “[It] could have been something more… then it weren’t anymore,” says Alice, in a statement that on the surface refers to a lost lottery ticket and inadvertently refers to her miscarriage from the previous scene, but this could also be seen to speak for the premature ending of her relationship with Michael. Kari and Socha work to make the script funny; we laugh at Michael’s everyday strife such as not having a pound for the trolley at Tesco, but also at the black comedy in certain lines such as Alice’s understatement: “It’s been a shit week”, in reference to the fact she “fucking died”. Borrett juxtaposes past with present, happiness with horror throughout This is Living, and the play is speckled with genuinely romantic and heart-wrenching moments such as when the couple dance on the water-flooded stage to Mumford & Sons’ ‘I Will Wait’.
Whilst This is Living has us yo-yoing between tears and laughter throughout, Borrett allows the tragedy of the story to take the final bow. The final conversation takes place on the couple’s bed as Michael, dressed for Alice’s funeral, sits with Alice – who for the first time is silent – in his arms, telling her he feels ready. This is a play about saying goodbye and, as Michael says, no matter which side of the grave you’re on, “we’re going through exactly the same thing”.
This is Living is playing Trafalgar Studios until 11 June 2016. For more information and tickets, see AGT Tickets website.
Photo: Tom Carter