Stephen Bill's jet-black comedy is more than 30 years old but time has been pretty kind to it. True, certain elements have dated – for instance, a character goes to a phone box to make a call and her sister enquires how many ten pence pieces it needed, and there is an unchallenged tinge of racism in a couple of the characters – but human nature doesn't basically change. And this play is acutely, even painfully, human. It is also, for the most part, superbly written.
At first we seem to be deep into Ayckbourn or Mike Leigh territory with the grimly jolly 86th birthday party of wheelchair-bound, almost blind Ida (a distressingly convincing Sandra Voe), presided over by two of her daughters, their partners and a kindly but pragmatic neighbour (Marjorie Yates in a delightful performance that is a miracle of understatement). Family point scoring and petty wrangles abound, and Bill displays an unerring knack for capturing the apparently inconsequential utterances of unremarkable people. There is a touching sense of a family trying to make the best of an appalling set of circumstances, hampered by the unexpected arrival of the long-estranged younger daughter (Caroline Catz, excellent), a free spirit who has refused to abide by the more conventional constraints that governed her senior sisters' lives.
This is all blown apart by the chilling realisation that, despite apparently few moments of lucidity, Ida has decided that she is done with life and has enlisted possibly the most unlikely member of the clan to aid her in ending it all. What follows is by turns harrowing and mordantly funny, and there are even shades of Joe Orton at his most subversively macabre as this all too fallible family implodes.
Certain audience members may find the first act too raw and accurate to enjoy but the second half is genuinely entertaining, also thought-provoking, as the piece explores the often absurd and selfish ways that some people deal with bereavement and shock. The naturalistic dialogue is a snarky joy: at one point the hapless nephew squawks "I'm working through a difficult period" as justification for his ongoing self-absorption, "your life, you mean?" responds his weary uncle.
It is only when Bill puts forward his impassioned arguments for and against euthanasia that the writing comes unstuck: the debate, while undeniably moving and impeccably presented, makes the characters temporarily sound like mouthpieces rather than fully rounded people. It's a small misstep in what is otherwise a remarkable script, full of insight, compassion, humour and brutal honesty.
Despite some unfortunate blocking – in a key scene one of the sisters is facing upstage throughout and is rendered barely audible – Lindsay Posner's production is riveting. The acting is uniformly flawless: as the older daughters, Wendy Nottingham and Saskia Reeves are entirely convincing as a pair who present an uneasily united front until circumstances drive them apart. Reeves, in particular, is wonderful at suggesting a woman so eaten up by guilt and misery that she can barely walk straight. There is equally accomplished work from Jonathan Coy and Tim Dutton as their well-meaning but not always helpful spouses, and from Leo Bill as the sole grandson, endlessly making mirth-free jokes at his elders' expense.
Peter McKintosh's living room set is an appropriate metaphor for the family at the centre of this loving, deceptively tough play: all chintzy gentility but look closely and you see the grime on the skirting boards and the mould coming through the peeling wallpaper.
Hilarious and discomfiting, this is not always an easy watch, and may upset as many people as it entertains; it does, however, feel as though a major piece of work has been rediscovered. An evening to freeze the cockles of your heart.
Curtains runs at Rose Theatre Kingston until 17 March.