★★★☆☆ Hampstead Downstairs, London Until 19 January
Given that almost a fifth of the UK population is aged 65 or over, I suspect there will be a growing appetite for plays about old age. Alan Bennett in Allelujah! and Florian Zeller in The Height of the Storm have recently tackled the subject. Now Dusty Hughes, in his first stage piece since 2000, has come up with a quietly touching summer-garden play about the penalties, and occasional pleasures, of growing old. But I suspect I shall remember the piece mainly for the performance of the ever-astonishing Sara Kestelman.
She plays a green-fingered oldster called Goose and Geoffrey Freshwater is an elderly gay man named Meakin. Both are residents of a private retirement home and, having known each other since schooldays, exist in a state of friendly antagonism. But their chief delight lies in mocking, and shocking, their unseen co-retirees; he, in particular, loves to leave softporn magazines in the dining room. But the play’s only real crisis erupts when Goose is threatened with eviction by the home’s new manager over her inability to pay her bills: a situation that Meakin, who has accumulated a small fortune after living for 40 years with a famous artist, does little to alleviate.
Not a lot happens in terms of plot. You often feel, especially when a sympathetic maid talks about her dead boyfriend and anarchic gran, that Hughes is marking time.
His achievement lies in capturing the querulous co-dependence of the odd couple at the heart of his play and the mix of desperation and lack of inhibition that is part of old age. Meakin, looking back on his privileged past, says that he now feels: “Like a castle sacked by barbarians.” But he and Goose feel free to drink gin mid-afternoon, bitch about their contemporaries and split hairs about the sex lives of spiders.
In Kestelman’s performance, however, it is Goose who emerges as the more complex character. We learn that she was a history teacher, that her savings were frittered away by her daughter and that she is still suffering the after-effects of a stroke. Kestelman conveys the humiliations of her condition such as being asked, after a memory loss, to name the current prime minister. But when she says that all the people she once was are still inside her, you grasp the compensations of age. Seeking affirmation from Meakin of his unspoken love for her, Kestelman cries “Lie to me” with an urgency that stirs the blood. With her close-knit helmet of white hair and rigorously attentive eyes, Kestelman gives a performance you won’t quickly forget.
Freshwater captures well the rumbustious selfishness and capricious mischief of the misanthropic Meakin. Claire Lams as the home’s brisk new boss redeems an initially frosty character by suggesting it is no picnic coping with the wayward old and Rebekah Hinds reveals the compassion of the gossipy maid. Alice Hamilton, who directed Barney Norris’s Visitors, also confirms that she has a special gift for dealing with plays about senior citizens. Although the play has affinities with David Storey’s Home, it lacks that work’s visual and verbal poetry. What it does do, in its modest, slow-burning way, is remind us that it is perfectly possible to confront the privations of age with a stoic fortitude.
Dusty Hughes captures the mix of desperation and lack of inhibition that is part of old age
Astonishing ... Sara Kestelman in Paradise