The title of Luke Norris’ impressive debut play, which launches the Young Writers Festival at the Royal Court, is already taken by Robert Graves for his famous First World War autobiography.
But Norris’ play can claim its own share of bitterness and poignancy in the portrait of 70 year-old Frank (Roger Sloman), whose 40 year-old marriage is blown apart by his affair with the glamorous widow of an old colleague at the Romford golf club.
Then Frank has a stroke and the second part of a 75-minute play shows a struggle by his grandson David (Alexander Cobb) and the lover, Rita (Linda Marlowe), to remove Frank from a council home into private health care - with Rita’s money.
This movement - represented in snappy scenes played out on Tom Piper’s white, slab-like design, with carpets and furnishing at the side - isolates the wife, Iris (Susan Brown) even more. There’s a thunderbolt, too, concerning what happened to her and Frank’s daughter, David’s mother.
Norris, a young actor who has appeared The Kitchen and The Habit of Art at the National, exhibits all the virtues of rookie writing - a painful honesty, brutal scene switches, a young person’s (ie, David’s) sense of isolation and sadness - and an unexpectedly mature narrative control, too, aided by Simon Godwin’s smart and sensitive production.
And he’s flattered by an extraordinary, cunningly weighted performance from Roger Sloman as Frank, who’s reduced to self-wetting humiliation and mute immobility after the stroke. Frank’s too brief happiness is movingly caught in the slow dance he shares with raven-haired Rita; then it’s the tubes, the catheter and the oxygen mask.
By an amazing (I assume) coincidence, Goodbye to All That shares an Essex setting, and a patient stretched out on a hospital bed, with In Basildon playing in the main auditorium downstairs. It also shares a good deal of compassion for two warring female characters.
The sisters in In Basildon haven’t spoken for 20 years. Iris and Rita are at even tougher loggerheads, but a curious sense of loss and resolution invades the last scenes, with beautiful playing by Marlowe and Brown, the one softening and self-sacrificial, the other stoical, enclosed and finally resigned to her own tragic failings.