Family. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. Barney Norris’s new play Missing, directed by Alice Hamilton at the Tristan Bates Theatre, tells the story of brothers Luke (Rob Heaps) and Andy (Joe Robertson) who live with their mother in Andover. It’s Thatcher’s Britain; unemployment is high, optimism is low. The boys bicker all the time – close in age and sharing a bedroom, too, they never miss an opportunity to get under each other’s skin. Underneath the sniping is a genuine affection, and they are drawn together through love of their mother and their lack of a father. Luke is quiet, introverted, a reader. He’s off to university soon, and the younger, more boisterous Andy feels abandoned. What way out is there for him? Will he be left in Andover, taking care of his mother? He thinks about the future and wonders what on earth he can do with his life.
Flash forward – Luke’s distraught mother calls him back home from university. Andy has dropped out of school, and has enlisted in the army. They argue – “This is my life. I want to do more with it than flip burgers”, says Andy. “The army is a killing machine”, says Luke. “It might kill you now or it might kill you later but it’ll kill you in the end.” Never mind the ‘80s – the same conversations are happening in homes across the country two decades later. It might not be about the military, but the words capture a generational Zeitgeist still current today.
Despite technical problems on the evening I was there, once the performance re-started both actors held their focus admirably (nothing like stopping mid-scene and announcing a lighting failure before exiting swiftly and hanging around in the wings for ten minutes to put you off your stride). Although the main focus is the two boys’ relationship, there are a few things I felt that the script left underdeveloped. For example, it is clear that their father was also in the military and is not around any more. If that were more overtly developed – perhaps a mention of the circumstances of the father’s death – I felt it would give more significance to the opening scene; Luke helps a sleepwalking Andy back into bed, but the timeframe is not completely clear. Is this scene after Andy’s enlistment, or before? Is the suggestion that he was injured in active service and invalided home, and that’s why someone (in Luke’s words) “should kill him?” Knowing what happened to the father would help us understand what has happened to the son. At one point Luke says he walked to where “my father used to work”. Andy says nothing. Is Andy’s father not Luke’s father? I was left unsure. These minor points aside, the dialogue between the brothers is delicately written and realistically delivered; both actors perform with subtlety and confidence. Generally well-observed with a dash of nostalgia and, despite the bleak background, often humourous, the piece is as a snapshot of a family – and a country – struggling against the odds.
Missing is Norris’s second play – his debut, At First Sight, toured in 2011. Up In Arms, the company with which Norris and Director Alice Hamilton are associated, is continuing a productive relationship with the Tristan Bates, where it has also performed Schubert’s Winterreise and one-night alternative comedy event Matt Fisher – I Have Something To Say (both in 2011).
Missing is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 25 February. For more information and tickets see the Tristan Bates Theatre website.