Unexpectedly recognising something is a powerful experience – spotting someone in the street that looks like a friend or accidentally catching your own reflection can be deeply affecting, and this seems to be magnified triggered by a work of art. In the exceptionally well-observed Visitors these moments are frequent but subtle enough not to be overly sentimental, making for an incredibly moving piece of theatre.
This begins before the play even starts, with the stage set with the footstools, rug and crossword books that are standard issue for any elderly relative. Arthur and Edie, the elderly couple at the heart of the drama, also reminisce and bicker in a way that provides touchstones for anyone who has spent time with their grandparents, whilst also presenting their individual experience. This opening, with its snatched pieces of memory mixed with current worries accentuated by Edie’s accelerating dementia, echoes Beckett. Here, however, Godot does arrive, in the shape of young home help volunteer Kate. This sets in motion a gradual unravelling of family tensions and a debate about care for the elderly.
Writer Barney Norris has described increasing life expectancy as one of the greatest challenges faced by Middle England, and the questions he poses here – in his first full-length play – feel timely and important. It is a noble undertaking, tainted only by the difficulty posed by his tackling this subject as a young man. Norris writes Arthur and Edie beautifully, but the deep, unquestioned love and easy conversation sometimes feel saccharine. Norris clearly recognises this, and has Arthur address the problem in an early scene by explaining to Kate that the couple don’t often talk that much, and that they are just excited about her arrival. Nevertheless, because we don’t actually see these everyday silences, Visitors, despite its depiction of dementia, can occasionally seem like a rose-tinted view of the old age that we might wish for our relatives and ourselves.
Image Mark Douet
This issue is mitigated entirely, however, by breath-taking performances from Linda Bassett as Edie and Robin Soans as Arthur. Their love never feels anything less than genuine, and Edie’s illness is played with great sensitivity. Because of how adoring they are, it is slightly baffling that they have managed to produce such odious offspring as Stephen, played with an uncomfortably tense gawkiness by Simon Muller. It is difficult to feel sympathy for him, even as he delivers a great set piece of a joke that falls completely flat, highlighting the gulf between him an his father, or his increasingly apparent sadness. The only duff note is Muller’s tight-lipped Jimmy Carr-esque delivery of Stephen’s desperate one-liners, which, although clearly meant to grate, do so too successfully.
There is a slither of hope for Stephen, though: in the opening scene Arthur delivers an affectionately sarcastic “ho ho” in response to a comment from his wife; later, his son does the same. This verbal tic, passed down between generations, seems to be the one thing that father and son share, suggesting that if old age presents challenges of isolation and changes to the world that make it difficult to understand, at least we can pass down laughter and affection.
London Theatre Reviewer
Catch Visitors till March 29 2014 at the Arcola Theatre