Neil Dowden in north London
12 November 2023
Richard Bean’s new play To Have and to Hold takes a wryly comic look at the absurdities of old age mixed in with some darker elements about declining health and encroaching death, as well as a mystery subplot. It feels like a personal work that explores the widely recognizable dilemmas of two middle-aged siblings – who have moved away from their geographical and class roots – as they return home to help their nonagenarian parents who don’t want to be helped, which raises some big laughs but ends with genuine pathos.
Marion Bailey, Christopher Fulford and Alun Armstrong.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Retired in the East Yorkshire village of Wetwang, Jack and Florence Kirk have been married for more than six decades – and they know how to push each other’s buttons. Indeed, it may be that their constant bickering is what keeps them going as coping with everyday matters becomes more of a struggle – Florence’s eyesight is failing while the frailer Jack, a former police officer, has mobility issues as he bemoans how much his life has shrunk and how all his friends have died.
Their son Rob – a successful writer based in London who spends much time in LA – and daughter Tina – who lives in Somerset where she works as a business manager for private doctors – come back to try to sort things out. Jack has recently crashed the car, and he has underlying health problems that need treatment in hospital where he is afraid of going. As the two children are far away most of the time, their intrusive cousin Pamela has been frequently popping in to do things, while eccentric friend “Rhubarb” Eddie brings food from his allotments as well as shops. Rob and Tina feel guilty about their lack of involvement, especially when they find out that money has been stolen from their parents’ bank account.
The set-up is close to Bean’s own family background, with Jack and Florence inspired by – if not portraits of – his parents, while Rob is a sort of alter ego. And though the story is invented, the intriguing cases – some amusing, some shocking – that Jack recalls from his police career are actually ones that Bean’s father told, even if they may embroider the truth. This no doubt explains the play’s added poignancy which is not normally associated with a stand-up comic turned prolific playwright who is best known for his fast-paced farces and satires (including of course One Man, Two Guvnors) – though there are plenty of jokes here too.
The company. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
In fact, the show starts with a brilliant visual and aural gag in one of the funniest stage entrances you will see – the creaking sound of a stairlift slowly descending into view with a seated Florence, who then gets in an indecisive muddle with the controls as simultaneously Jack shouts for her to bring a bucket upstairs while the doorbell is repeatedly rung (by a frustrated Rob) downstairs. Her unexpected solution is wildly funny.
There are many laugh-out-loud lines, such as Florence saying of Jack: “He talks about going to Switzerland, to that place where you pay them to kill you … And I say, ‘Go! It’ll do you good. Broaden your horizons … you’ve never been abroad!’” Or when Florence tells Rob she thinks Jack has been watching porn on TV and “parental controls” is given a witty role-reversal. Most of the humour comes from the sarcastic exchanges between the couple: “Do you want a cup of tea?” “Do I look like I want a cup of tea?”
In fact, the banter in the first half of the play, though enjoyable, is a bit relentless, while there is a lack of dramatic tension or narrative drive despite the promising scenario of inter-generational conflict. It gains in strength in the second half as more feeling develops and it becomes clear that Jack and Florence are mutually dependent with their constant barbs like love bites. There is a brief, movingly intimate moment when Jack anxiously asks Florence if she – no one else – will wash his body after he has died, and she replies of course. Later, Covid rears its ugly head in an unexpected way.
The intrigue over the couple’s stolen money is not entirely convincing, but it does point up the real contemporary problem of some elderly people being almost disenfranchised by their inability to keep up to date with the Internet age. More successful is the use of Jack’s anecdotal monologues – some of which he is dictating onto cassette unbeknown to Rob who wants him to speak into his own digital voice recorder – that not only reveal an incident-packed past life, but also serve as an emotional connection between real-life policeman father and creator of fictional detective son. Jack is just as much of a storyteller as Rob.
This “one foot in the grave” show is expertly helmed by Richard Wilson (who has directed several plays by Bean before including his first, Toast, at the Royal Court in 1999) and another erstwhile collaborator and fellow Hampstead favourite Terry Johnson. Terry Cotterill’s lovingly detailed, authentic design features the Kirks’ old-fashioned living room complete with a sharply slamming kitchen hatch and enveloping recliner chairs.
The wonderful Alun Armstrong – too long absent from the stage – makes every punchline count as a deliciously crotchety Jack who is ageing disgracefully, all too aware that he does not have much time left on the beat. Also a hoot, Marion Bailey is a fine foil as the no-nonsense Florence who gives as good as she gets with a stream of non sequiturs. Christopher Fulford also does well as the bemused Rob who bottles up his emotions, while Hermione Guilliford is the more coolly pragmatic Tina. Rachel Dale plays the irritating do-gooder Pamela, and Adrian Hood gives Eddie an engaging, larger-than-life presence.