This is an especially fecund time for Michael Frayn, whose Here at the Rose, in a persuasive revival by Lisa Spirling, marks a notable rehabilitation of a play received as a mixed blessing at the Donmar Warehouse in 1993.
With a new novel just published, Noises Off packing them in at the Novello and an acclaimed revival of Democracy heading to the Old Vic from the Frayn fest at the Sheffield Crucible you would forgive the playwright, no spring chicken, for taking his foot off the pedal.
Instead, he offers a heavily revised and re-jigged version of a play that is part philosophical exercise and part love story wrapped in smart but unshowy dialogue revolving round the occupation of a bare attic apartment in suburbia.
Cath and Phil are on the brink of a life together, planning its practicalities, not its meaning. That comes later. Their conversation is spiky, tentative, concerned. Do they like the place? Will it work for them? Where will the bed go?
The pair are very attractively played by Zawe Ashton and Alex Beckett, their banter at first encircling each other as much as the space itself.
They are joined by landlady Pat, a garrulous widow given a wonderful comic fleshiness by Alison Steadman in an oatmeal cardigan, a pair of too short trousers and flat-heeled white Moccasins.
“If you don’t want me up here, you’ve only got to say,” says Pat, dropping anchor for another ramble about this being once the boys’ room, or where best to put her husband Eric’s chair, or simply the state of the world.
The couple find and lose each other (literally), divide the bed, share the same big floppy jumper, make love, move on and somehow slide from a touching new start to a poignant farewell. Lines are spoken as they are lived and life itself seems to follow the words out of the window.
Polly Sullivan’s design has solved the notorious problem of width and lack of focus in the Rose by creating a thrust stage that immediately transforms the space into a manageable house for comedy.
Phil ruminates urgently on the element of chance in our lives, how there wouldn’t have been a mountain to walk up without the rock strata tilting in a certain way, or how Cath might have been standing in another room altogether and with someone else.
This thought colours the immediacy of the play itself and of this moment that we witness in a theatre on a certain night. It is very moving, in a curiously original way, and a great vindication of Frayn’s belief in the worth of the play.
In Europe the play has been constantly revived; Here there was always more of a success than Here here. But now, I’d be very surprised if Here today will be gone tomorrow.