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by on 2 March 2018

Dying with Laughter!


by Stephen Bill

RTK at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 17th March

Review by Mark Aspen

No doubt The Grim Reaper has a chill edge to his scythe, so it was with some poetic justice that reaching The Rose Theatre for the press night of Curtains was through a -3˚C blizzard, with the scythe edge of the wind bringing a chill factor into the minus double digits. So, a good night to warm up by going to see a play billed as “a comedy about the end of life”. I approached unconvinced that The Grim Reaper is a laugh-a-minute sort of chap.
However, well before the interval, it became clear that Curtains is not a really comedy, it is a thought-provoking and taut exploration of bereavement and guilt that sits inside a comedy. The humour is there, but it is uneasy, although nevertheless genuine, and comes from the edginess of the play and from the characters’ non sequiturs that emerge from us all in times of stress.
Although the sanctity of human life is paramount, The Grim Reaper may in extremis be welcomed, although perhaps not when introduced by one of one’s nearest and dearest. Yes, Curtains is a comedy about euthanasia! But under the pen of Stephen Bill, and the exacting direction of Lindsay Posner, it becomes in the current Rose Theatre’s revival, a poignantly provocative work of art.

Designer Peter McKintosh’s set, subtly lit by Paul Pyant, of the living room in the home of elderly Ida, is in itself a metaphor for her life as it is now in 1987. There are cracks in the plaster, and some chunks have fallen from the frieze, but generally it is in not-too bad a shape, due mainly to the interventions of various of her adult relatives. Indeed, one such “improvement” is happening as the play opens, for today it is Ida’s 86th birthday and her daughters and their husbands are visiting, complete with Dream Topping trifle (“easier for her to digest than cream”), and sandwiches relieved of their bread-crusts.
In spite of her burgeoning dementia, Ida seems the only sensible person there, as the other all patronise her something rotten with accentuated baby-talk (to which she is able to give some pretty robust replies). Sandra Voe, as Ida, is outstanding with a well-studied portrait of the bewildered old lady, struggling to make sense of her disinteresting perceptions and pain-racked existence. I would have liked to have seen more of ex-RSC actress Voe, it was a pity that she is the one character to go early, but as you may have discerned, the plot demanded that she go early. However, it would be a real spoiler to reveal her actual psychopomp.

Much of the true comedy comes from looking in on the internecine bickering, which most of us will uncomfortably recognise in even the most loving families. The siblings in Ida’s family get along as smoothly as interlocking sandpaper, and Ida’s party has been organised by the sandpapers sisters, Margaret and Katherine, who have brought along husbands Douglas and Geoffrey. Margaret has allowed her feeling towards all her family, including mother and husband, to become soured and Wendy Nottingham in this role puts over all of the acerbity of the character to the point of vindictiveness. Katherine is a bag of nerves: Saskia Reeves’ portrayal fairly zings with tense fretfulness.

The sisters’ husbands are there reluctantly. Margaret’s husband ex-RAF man Douglas busies himself repairing Ida’s lawnmower. Tim Dutton depicts Douglas’ chisel-edged brusqueness and sarcasm with biting accuracy. Geoffrey, not having garden machinery to mend, sets about repairing the fractures in the family relationships with placatory resignation. Jonathan Coy plays Geoffrey to a tee, with the nuanced indecision of the fish-out-water.

For these two couples the party is, in honesty, a chore. Moreover it is a chore exacerbated by the dilemma that everyone finds themselves in. Ida does not want to go to a care home; trial attempts at a live-in granny have been disasters; but Ida is incapable of independence any more.
Ida is not home alone though. Her dutiful carer, Mrs Jackson, is always at hand, resourceful, resilient and reliable. Marjorie Yates plays the knowing Mrs J with just the right amount of starchy propriety. Moreover, Ida’s grandson Michael, lodges with her while he is studying at a nearby university. He is fiercely loyal and loving towards Ida, but all this is hidden under a protective carapace of flippancy. Leo Bill, as Michael, has the balance of geekiness and intensity that pervades an earnest but awkward young man.

If this interplay of fraught relationships is not enough, into the party bursts the black sheep of the family, youngest sister Susan, her lively refreshing vivacity tempered by caution after a 25 year absence. She wants to see her mother on her birthday and to be welcomed back into the sheepfold. Her reception is not enthusiastic, for Susan has been an unmentionable embarrassment, having been ejected from the family bosom for having disgraced herself. O tempora! O mores! : this would not happen now, but in 1962 her taboo state was … pregnant. Caroline Catz’s Susan is bubbling, forgiving and remarkably thick-skinned to her ungracious reception. However she has taken a lot of knocks and her life has been unsuccessful to say the least. She is now divorced and homeless. Of all the characters Susan’s is the most sympathetic and one felt that the audience warmed to her. She adds spice to this complex melting pot of emotions and attitudes.

As a by-the-by, the characters accents are all eclectic generic Northern. Perhaps these indicate a diaspora of the family beyond its roots, but Susan’s strong Scouse accent at least gives a sense of place.
Unfortunately for Susan, her time with her mother is short-lived, literally, as she does not know that dear old mum is about to be bumped off. Maybe none of the protagonists did; perhaps it was a spontaneous act, but one of them had been researching in the library  for the legalities and the mechanics of euthanasia.
When poor Ida is discovered dead, and soon to be realised, killed, the emotional melting pot is thickened by the conflicting and complex reactions that the family have to their sudden bereavement. It is as well that this is a comedy, for without the relief of humour (and for the characters mostly unwitting humour) the psychology of death, and especially of euthanasia, would become unbearable heavy.

Curtains1 Manuel Harlan
Curtains is a play of two halves. Until Ida’s death, it is a knockabout of family trivia, laced with the black comedy of the inevitability of Ida’s impending death. There is the shock hiatus of the killing itself, then the second half falls into an introspective lecture on perceived views on euthanasia, albeit still leavened with clever crafted comedy. The insights move from revelatory to didactic in style.
In spite of Mrs Jackson’s repeated mantra that it is “a blessed relief”, reactions go into panic mode. The relief turns to fear and guilt moves to mutual blame.
Margaret’s blame is immediately laid on the bewildered and distraught Susan; “she was looking up until you arrived”. Katherine anxiety explodes in a paroxysms of guilt, while Geoffrey tries to mollify everyone with platitudes, but remains too weak-willed to achieve any sort of harmony; “underneath he’s terrified”. Then Douglas’s alcohol fuelled atheism fires in. With the firmly stated emphasis of one for whom there is no higher authority and a belief that there is no knowledge unbounded by human understanding, he pragmatically asserts that all is for the best. This is much to the dismay of Michael, the only person to take a moral stand, but he is not as articulate as his uncle and his arguments are quickly flattened by Douglas’s brutish humanism. When Michael returns having gathered his words to express his horror at the killing of his much-loved grandmother, and says “thou shalt not kill”, Douglas “accuses” him of being “religious”. Whist Douglas cites his military background for not believing “ancient superstitions” (*), Michael clearly is the only one of the family who has an untainted respect for human life.
Although Curtains does veer heavily to being a pedagogic analysis of the multi-faceted arguments around euthanasia, the characters who express the competing views are certainly not two-dimensional. Each undergoes a huge emotional journey and this is accurately demonstrated in both the script and in the superb, and ensemble-strong, acting of the RTK cast.
However, we must be thankful for the humour that makes Curtains so entertaining. It might seem odd that a play about euthanasia can be not only entertaining but actually funny, but we could reflect that, long before Agatha Christie, murder was, and remains, a subject for entertainment. Perhaps, O tempora! O mores! , taboos shift.
After all, when you see a picture of The Grim Reaper his teeth show us a laughing face. Maybe he is laughing all the way to the …

Mark Aspen
March 2018

(* but see General, The Lord Dannatt )

Photography by Manuel Harlan


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