Sometimes the joy in theatre is the opportunity to relish in two hours of pure imaginative escapism. At others, it’s the chance to explore familiar turf, to remind ourselves of what we know, to see something articulated that we never could express ourselves, and to see our own lives distilled into tender moments between characters we come to care for. This latter type of theatre is not always necessarily ‘ground-breaking’, it does not always experiment with structure or form, or transport you to an unknown world, but it can truly speak to you, and break the heart in doing so. Visitors by Barney Norris, currently playing at the Bush Theatre, falls into the latter type of theatrical experience, making for a truly rewarding night at the theatre as a consequence.
Visitors takes a tender look at the relationship between elderly Arthur and Edie, played by Robin Soans and Linda Bassett respectively, as Edie’s health gradually declines. Their son, Steven (Simon Muller) hires the young Kate (Eleanor Wyld), to live in with and look after them. Everyone struggles to cope as dementia takes hold of Edie and tough decisions have to be made about her, and the family’s future.
There are moments when it is possible to find fault with Visitors for feeling rather too traditional: it’s a typically well-made play, in a familiar setting, discussing family and its fragility. Its opening, with Arthur and Edie reminiscing about old times, certainly caused a flicker of worry that the whole piece would be backward-looking, and as such, a wasted opportunity to really hear the voice of an oft unheard or ignored generation. Nonetheless, a slightly clunky and expositional first half did give way to, or indeed paved the way for, a thoroughly touching second half and conclusion.
Despite my initial reservations – somewhat a by-product of my high expectations following Norris’s nomination for the Evening Standard’s Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright – I came away from the second half utterly convinced. Visitors is an undeniably compelling and highly accomplished play, particularly for being Norris’s first full-length piece. It is incredibly well-observed and human, marked by moments of devastating poignancy as it goes on. The characters are richly detailed: full of contradictions and yearning and brought to life by an expert cast. It is a slow-burner which gradually draws you in, and will certainly warm the cockles of your heart on these winter nights.
Visitors is playing at the Bush Theatre until 10 January 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Bush Theatre website. Photo by Mark Douet.