At the start of the play Tom and Beth stand side by side, but isolated from each other, at the front of a bare stage, each engaged in a monologue to the audience. Tom’s is a riff on the theme of “I don’t not love her” – which is what Presumption is all about, a stage of love defined by negatives, plus external factors, rather than by passion.
Third Angel’s small-scale touring production is a subtle, wry, occasionally silly, ultimately serious meditation on that stage in a relationship when it is both threatened and kept together by routine. Beth’s audit of her reasons for not leaving Tom is chillingly practical as well as amusing: she is bound to him by books and CDs and the difficulty of socialising on her own as much as by any qualities he possesses.
This potentially depressing theme is relieved by a production style as eccentric as it is appropriate. The stage begins completely bare, with markings to indicate the placing of furniture which is then added piece by piece as required by the situations and dialogue. Tom and Beth stagger on with screens and tables or fling plates and bowls around with competitive gusto. He even tests her goalkeeping skills with a bombardment of books and ornaments. At the end the set is full of the objects that define their relationship.
The other main narrative motif is repetition. The first half of the 75 minute play is devoted mainly to variations on a post-dinner party conversation. Accelerated summaries recapitulate dialogue up to the point of a furniture-moving interruption, with variations of tone (from dull normality to Noel Coward-type brittleness to incipient bitterness) that reveal the sub-text beneath the banal exchanges.
It is hardly surprising (given that design is part of the narrative framework) that Presumption is devised, written, designed and directed by the same two people, regular Third Angel collaborators, Alexander Kelly and Rachael Walton, with Chris Thorpe added to the writing team. Thorpe also partners Lucy Ellinson as Tom and Beth, “the generic thirtysomethings of our time”, performances that make a virtue out of normality.
This is a production perfectly geared to intimate venues: even The Door, Birmingham Rep’s studio theatre, seems at times a touch large-scale for the play’s casually confessional tone. It builds not to a dramatic climax, but to the ambiguous optimism of a shared, silent cup of tea.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre)