The Guardian - G2 - - Live Reviews - Michael Billing­ton

★★★☆☆ 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

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