There’s a great scene in the 2009 rom-com (500) Days of Summer where Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes to a party, hoping to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend. The encounter plays out in split screen, and we see his experience through expectation versus reality; getting the girl in his mind, whilst in truth he sits drinking by himself. In essence, Matt Fox has created a two hour long version of this scene in his new play The Life We Lived, which is playing at Theatre N16 before going on tour. Whilst this latest effort is a good few drafts away from being a finished article, it’s still a touching little drama that evokes emotion in all the right places.
In The Life We Lived, Michael, an undertaker, recalls past events with his partner Hannah, who just happens to be lying dead on a table in front of him. We pass from 1996 through to 2010, the year Hannah dies, all scene changes noted by a character removing a page from a calendar behind them. Ultimately what we see is a warm, well-written drama about a successful relationship. It’s when we pass 2010 that we start to get a little confused as Hannah is clearly still wandering around, and won’t die peacefully until 24 years later. Where (500) Days of Summer presented its split timeline simultaneously, Fox writes his narrative into separate acts. Hannah presents Act Two as the ‘reality’. In this version, the happy couple are a lot more dysfunctional, a lot more dangerous, and clearly no-one is getting out of this easily. The narrative structure is handled very efficiently, and though Fox lands a few thuds trying to help his audience catch up (characters reminding each other of their ages and events they have planned are a big ride on the exposition train), it is possible to draw nice parallels that enhance the experience of the play. Themes of life and death float around everywhere, and hearing the different perspectives from each character, particularly foreshadowing their eventual demises, are more original than they sound. There’s no beating about the bush here; death is death, and that’s sometimes so refreshing to hear, especially in theatre where it often can be treated as a device.
Here’s the problem though. Act Two is always going to be as unfulfilling and unsatisfying as it sounds. The characters are no longer likeable. They say spiteful things, and it’s a very messy affair. Yes, that’s supposed to be the point, and Hannah whacks us round the head with that at the plays end: “A disappointingly cliched ending to a life and relationship which had such potential”. Fine, but you’ll still leave feeling underwhelmed by the whole play, and under-schooled in the art of subtlety – as Homer Simpson famously said “The classy thing to do would be not to call attention to it”. Dialogue-wise, there’s nothing here you wouldn’t find anywhere else, including the abundance of quips and references our characters throw out. This might be a small thing, but it bugs me tremendously – if you’re going to refer to something, make sure its something of your time period. Instagram certainly wasn’t popular in 2007, and iPads still to be thought of in 2004. It shows a lack of detail in the writing process that sticks out when you watch it.
Despite that, the performances are mostly a hit. Steve Cowley as Michael also directs, and brings a lovely warmth to his otherwise ‘lurch’ tendencies. He has an ease on the stage that is just fabulous, and although his gut-wrenching at the finale is a little OTT, his talking head moments provide the real heart of the play – all charm, wit and pathos. Hannah is played by Heather Davies, and sadly she can’t match her counterpart in terms of performance value. Hannah is a very cold and distant character, but Davies can’t find a way to fall out of the monotony with which she delivers her lines without making them seem very forced. It’s a fairly uncomfortable performance, though she does display good comic timing, and is a reasonable enough foil for Cowley that the central relationship remains engaging throughout.
The Life We Lived is not a wholly satisfying play to watch. I left learning nothing new and feeling as though you could have been surprised a lot more. Matt Fox, although demonstrating a good art in storytelling, might want to think about a few more redrafts until he washes his hands of this one. That said, go for the first half. It’s arresting, entertaining and poignant – a nice reflection of two people spending the rest of their time together. For a play so concerned with death, it’s really great to see life prevailing.
The Life We Lived played at Theatre N16 until Thursday 11 February 2016, and is touring around the country later in the year. For more information, see www.theatren16.co.uk and madamrenards.wordpress.com