Rhubarb and swingers from Victor Meldrew
To Have And To Hold (Hampstead Theatre, London) Verdict: Bittersweet sitcom ★★★★✩
THE secret of growing rhubarb, according to cheery Yorkshire man- mountain Rhubarb Eddie in Richard Bean’s semiautobiographical new play, is horse manure. ‘Do you force it?’ asks someone. ‘No. I have nowt to do with horse,’ replies Eddie, alarmed.
It’s just one of many great gags in Bean’s bittersweet comedy that’s also a moving eulogy to his parents, set in the (real) village of Wetwang, East Riding.
His 91-year- old dad is portrayed as a masterful grump, recording stories from his time as a copper in between coughing fits.
He and Mum are heartily fed-up with each other after 70 years of marriage, but crime writer son and healthcare business manager daughter are up for the weekend from London and Cornwall to give some respite care.
Sadly, while ‘ helping’, they come to suspect family friend Eddie of ripping off their old folks, when he goes to get them cash from the bank.
Aside from the jokes (including one about children having to use parental controls to stop elderly parents straying on to porn channels), the play has its serious side, too.
Not only is the parents’ health failing (Dad is hacking up blood), they are isolated — geographically, from family; and in tech terms, too: adrift from the digital world that orders most of our lives.
Fittingly directed by Richard Wilson of Victor Meldrew fame (with a little help from Terry Johnson), the tribute to Bean’s parents could have been titled Four Feet In The Grave.
Alun Armstrong’s Dad yearns for the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, but has never been abroad.
Marion Bailey’s Mum lives in fear of passing flashers, attracted by her pampas grass (a well-known sign, apparently, for swingers).
For me, though, Adrian Hood stole the show as Rhubarb Eddie, the enormous local fixer in his muddy wellies who loves nothing better than lolling in the family’s spring-operated armchair recliner.
Yes, it’s a little sedentary. And maybe Bean could have dug deeper into his play’s emotional agonies.
But I was grateful for the laughs, which somehow helped to crystallise the sadness of our society: divided between the young and old — those who have flown the nest and the loved ones they left behind.