The intrepid trio of good friends started off in the National Theatre studio sharing a pen and a roll of wallpaper. They ended with a trenchant domestic epic played out in the shadow of the apocalypse.
Three weeks before the cosmic string destroys the universe, the five Benton brothers converge on the family farm and their ancient mother, unravelling old arguments, finding new paths, seeking closure, if not reconciliation.
Here are characters etched in sharp relief, having the conversations we all know we should have but probably never will. This sense of concentration and valedictory resolution is stamped all the way through Sean Holmes’ superb production.
You can identify bits of Holman in the nature poetry; of Stephens in the Stockport chapters and news of panic in the cities, where customers in department stores are defecating on perfume counters; and of Eldridge in the domestic recapitulations, notably, perhaps, in the suddenly maturing friendship of one of the brothers and the grandson he has raised alone.
But what is most striking is the attempt to “write” theatre, something not often done since the heyday of Edward Bond and Howard Brenton. The old mother (a magnificent Ann Mitchell) slowly washes her naked eldest son (expressive Nigel Cooke), who is dying of cancer, in a tin bath.
The ghost of a Stockport grandmother (Lisa Diveney), who had an affair with a Jewish refugee from Buchenwald (Tom Mothersdale), appears to the youngest Benton (Harry McEntire), who is cradling his own mother as a baby. A valued watch is passed down. The clock ticks on, inexorably.
The generations coalesce in the urgency of clearing the air and addressing unfinished business. James Benton’s marriage to Harriet, fraught with needless misunderstandings and the love of a dog, is worked through in the intensity of the acting by Pearce Quigley and Tanya Moodie. Even the lost sheep brother (Andrew Sheridan) comes in from the mean streets.
John Bausor’s design, a clear thrust stage with a cycloramic sky and a constellation of light bulbs, cleanly incorporates a hospital in Middlesbrough, a bar in Manchester, a park in Stockport, and a house in Twickenham. The show is a great achievement all round, and will surely spark further explorations by these three talented spacemen.