It’s rare finding a simple piece of new writing that doesn’t rely on bombarding effects and clever use of space and props to compete with the money and bling put into West End shows. But when you find one, a little piece of heartfelt, natural theatre that just opens a door to a glimpse of life without throwing a billion lighting cues in your face, it’s real theatre magic.
Visitors at the Arcola is Barney Norris’s first full-length play but has a voice and soul of an experienced and thoughtful playwright’s work. Arthur and Edie have lived together and loved each other for most of their lives, but time is running out and is threatening to separate them as Edie’s dementia worsens. Arthur is no longer in a physical position to care for his wife, and their son Stephen is distant and disconnected, only looking for a financial solution to solve getting his mother into a home. When the young Kate arrives to care for Edie their life-stories unfold and the family is forced to question whether they’ve fulfilled their dreams and lived the life they wanted.
Visitors is a beautiful and delicate view on love and time and how we let our lives slip away from us. Losing her memory, Edie feels like her life is eroding – getting old we cling onto our memories, we live for the past and what we have accomplished as the future is shortened, but what if those memories no longer exist? What happens when we don’t know what sort of life we’ve led and if it was as we wanted it to be?
Linda Bassett’s Edie is spirited, honest and lovable from the beginning and her heart-breaking journey with dementia, losing sense and grip on her life, is haunting and beautiful to witness. It’s real, cutting into your bones and it triggers personal memories as most of us have had grandparents losing track of time, place and who their loved ones are. Robin Soans’s Arthur is devoted to his wife with a simple, touching honesty as he determinedly clings on to what is vanishing with haste. Simon Muller plays the selfish and self-absorbed son Stephen with justification and though he’s a self-made victim and isn’t capable of engaging with the people around him, his character is very true and believable. Eleanor Wyld has strong natural empathy and plays Kate with warmth and energy that inspires her surroundings to share and engage.
Francesca Reidy’s set design is simple and mostly naturalistic apart from a quirky detail of wooden boxes hanging on the back wall, each containing the old couple’s memories or significant objects in their lives and stories which really highlights the play’s focus on how our past define us as people. Alice Hamilton’s direction is subtle and clever, giving the play space and means to breathe. Visitors is a play about how love is the bond that holds us together, even when everything else is falling apart. It’s one of those rare plays that stick with you, not like a bad taste in your mouth, but like a fuzzy feeling in your stomach subtly making you appreciate life and art just a bit more.
Visitors is playing at the Arcola until 29 March. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo by Mark Douet.