“Home”: Chichester Festival Theatre

Jeremy Malies in West Sussex

David Storey’s amazing play Home has been produced by the Chichester Festival Theatre as part of its autumn season. It’s an unforgiving, dense piece of writing that can easily become turgid if not handled skilfully.

 

Donna Croll, Daniel Cerqueira, Hayley Carmichael and John Mackay.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

 

Go into the piece with no research and you’ll be confronted by two seemingly affluent gentlemen in slacks and tweeds walking terraces that overlook extensive gardens. They appear to be casual or new acquaintances and are swapping inconsequential anecdotes. The setting could be a bowling club or a hotel in nearby Worthing, but something seems not quite right.

This is only partially a plot spoiler; the play is misunderstood and overlooked but does get occasional revivals including a perhaps definitive production at the Arcola Theatre in east London in 2013. Depending on how attentive and sharp you are (the first time I saw it the penny dropped belatedly as if through treacle), it becomes clear that the men are in an asylum. It may be a secured institution, but one of the alarming aspects of this mysterious play is that the characters are eerily normal. Wasn’t it Virginia Woolf who said that insanity is never far away for any of us, and a bout of it can be cathartic?

The scope is one day in the lives of five residents during which their shattered expectations are laid bare within the rubric of their existence which is the meal schedule at their institution.

The actors speak almost entirely in platitudes, and Storey gives them little but hazy, circuitous reminiscences. Speeches by Jack (John Mackay) are non-sequiturs such as, “Musicians, of course, are a strange breed altogether . . . Have you noticed how the best of them have very curly hair?” For the actor this is a challenge since there is no logical emotional journey, and even Ralph Richardson confessed that his prodigious technical resources were stretched in the premiere at the Royal Court in 1970. Mackay is equal to the demands made on him and is particularly affecting in his inept, infantile version of the three-card trick that underlines how the character has largely regressed into childhood.

 

Donna Croll, Hayley Carmichael, Daniel Cerqueira and John Mackay.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

 

In the second half, the men are joined by two female residents. Daniel Cerqueira (Harry) becomes an excruciating bag of nerves as he dredges up a reserve of gallantry to lavish on would-be suicide Kathleen (Hayley Carmichael) whose loud, open-legged vulgarity stresses the extreme fragility of those around her. Carmichael, herself a respected theatre director, throws the piece back into the ‘70s by performing in what I took as sustained Barbara Windsor tones. Doña Crol (Marjorie) is compelling as the one judgemental character ready to expose hat she imagines to be the numerous skeletons in Harry’s psychological cupboard.

Home is a sombre piece dealing with the debilitating effects of mental illness and the indignities suffered by many in the largescale institutions of the 1960s. The only slight clue as to period is the revelation from Harry’s newspaper that nuclear war may be looming, though with China currently flexing its muscles in the western Pacific even this comes across as current.

Director Josh Roche achieves a wonderful spare quality in the whole undertaking which somehow emphasizes the iron discipline of the asylum that lurks beneath the waterline. The exception to this is the teeming abundance of Sophie Thomas’ set with the garden conveying a sense of freedom and the plants apparently becoming more profuse as the action progresses. Alex Musgrave’s lighting has low slants of sun setting the flower beds alight. I took the struggle between the flowers and the weeds as a metaphor for the assault on the characters’ senses by mental illness. Unlike, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Changeling, and Marat/Sade where nurses step in to restore order, the regime of the asylum is only hinted at, and we never see staff.

 

Clockwise: Donna Croll, John Mackay, Daniel Cerqueira and John Mackay.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

 

Roche and his cast prove adept with the humour – always to the fore in Storey’s work despite the forbidding plotlines – and there are moments of high comedy such as Kathleen’s suggestion that married couples should meet only once a fortnight: “It’s ridiculous living together – not human!” There is a walk-on role for Leon Annor as Arthur, a former professional wrestler who comes across as manic and has probably been lobotomized.

Some have seen prescience in the play about the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. I don’t subscribe to this other than one of the themes being gestures of solidarity and kindness between subsets of people in difficult times, indeed a code of honour.

I’ve rarely been so upset in a theatre (in the positive sense of drama challenging me and making me more thoughtful) than when shuffling past Cerqueira who remains prone and whimpering at the front of the stage in the interval. I believe in him utterly, and the urge to break the fourth wall is almost overpowering. It’s engrossing and often disturbing. In 23 years of writing for this magazine and its predecessor Plays International I can’t remember being so moved.