Review: Visitors, Arcola Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Barney Norris first full-length play is an exquisitely written examination of love and loss. Through the still happy marriage of septuagenarians Arthur and Edie Wakeling, their difficult relationship with their son Steven, and the impact of Edie’s encroaching dementia on them all, Norris manages to explore issues of dissatisfaction, purposelessness, and the impossibility of honest communication which are symptomatic of contemporary society, particularly amongst the young.

The diminutive dimensions of the Arcola’s Studio Two are the perfect setting for this intimate family drama. Francesca Reidy’s sparing design vividly conjures up the farmhouse that has been the conjugal home of the Wakelings for fifty years. Adorned with seaside souvenirs, knitting needles, piles of tattered books, and centred on two well-worn, comfortable chairs, it is a visual representation of the events, shared memories and mutual experiences that make up this happy marriage. As the lights go up on the couple seated in those chairs and reminiscing about a coastal picnic, it is easy to imagine they have not moved for decades. From the first lines, both Robin Soans and Linda Bassett entirely inhabit their characters, movingly and convincingly portraying a couple utterly content and settled in their house and routine.

It is the disruption of this established order by Kate – a young, blue-haired woman come to act as carer for Edie – that kick starts the action of the play. Kate’s entrance physically knocks Arthur for six, and her presence initally conjures doubt and self-consciousness in both. Kate herself, played with energy and warmth by Eleanor Wyld, is in the middle of a crisis, unsure of her path or place in life, but she seems to be grounded and consoled by the enduring solidity of the Wakelings’ home and relationship.

In contrast, to their son Steven – Simon Muller on hilarious and abrasive form – the durability of his parent’s marriage seems rather an affront than a comfort. Although he turns on Kate, accusing her of being ‘only a visitor’, he too seems to be excluded by the complete self-sufficiency of his parent’s love. In the face of their romantic success, his own failing marriage seems even more painful to him. And in the closing moments of the play, as Edie recites her rosary of memories, his position on the outside of their unit is starkly illustrated, and our sympathy for this seemingly unlikeable man is awakened.

This startling moment is one of many such in Barney Norris’s fantastic play. Surely a future classic, it is here well-served on first outing by the restrained and delicate performances of his cast, and Alice Hamilton’s impeccable direction.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 29th March 2014.
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