The first product of the Soho Theatre's commendable Writers' Attachment Programme, this is a drama of fleeting romance pitted against enduring love. From a tumbledown stage backdrop (think Hansel and Gretel set on Coronation Street), emerge Catherine McCormack (Ruth) and Jason Hughes (Tony). It's reached that time of the party when the booze is at a premium, and a total stranger might just be the answer to your lovelorn woes.
The pair's opening exchanges are nervy and rather nerdy, with Chibnall prepared to take some risks here. It asks a fair bit of the audience to sit through a scene that most of us have played out ourselves with varying degrees of regret or reproach. Still, the duo find a shared breathing space away from the party's stragglers, debris and hangers-on who are never actually seen, but are sensed and heard like an approaching storm.
Like all would-be suitors, Ruth and Tony engage in some lively court and spark, whilst exploring out loud the type of dark thoughts that more normally plague the insomniac at this hour. McCormack is wistful and affecting, whilst Hughes (rapidly shaking off the shackles of This Life) looks utterly to the manor born on the contemporary stage. He is a natural star.
Into the duo's flirting drift the elderly couple from upstairs, played majestically by Harry Towb and Marlene Sidaway. They offer up comic relief in the first half, but it's not until after the interval that the dark drama of their secret life unfolds. What seems to be nothing more than an eccentric drinking contest between the two, soon reveals a more sober and shattering set of truths.
The veteran Towb is enormously convinving here, and gets this scribe's early vote for an Olivier. Sidaway, humbling and heartwarming in seductive red, is the wife of fifty years for whom life without her man becomes unthinkable. Chibnall delves deep for these two characters and you long to know who, or what, inspired them. Together they create a life-affirming poignancy and humour that the first half, for all its jazzy wit, slightly lacks.
Old losses, prejudices, recriminations, secret pacts, the pangs of love, life and death. What a swell party this is!
- by Gareth Thompson