Charles Dyer’s Mother Adam, a 1972 duet for an arthritic, bed-bound Mammles and her dependent, middle-aged son, Adam, is another lost gem given a new shine in Jermyn Street, following revelatory revivals of Terence Rattigan, Tennessee Williams and Charles Morgan.
Some of these plays really do constitute the shock of the old, written with an almost unfamiliar panache in ornate language with dialogue which, as Harold Hobson said of Mother Adam, is remarkably rich “in curious eloquence and stirring images.”
Hobson counted the play one of the few real tragedies of our time, and a masterpiece; I wouldn’t go that far, but there is in Gene David Kirk’s production, and in the exquisite playing of Linda Marlowe and Jasper Britton, a disturbing and very real sense of life and happiness hanging by a thread.
The one cannot live without the other: Mammles, a former Christian missionary with a cruel line in taunting tyranny, nonetheless wants Adam to get married to the unseen “piano teacher of maturity,” while Adam, who loathes that woman, first needs to know the identity of his father and what other secrets might be contained in the trunk.
The loneliness in their mutual dependency is touchingly explored in the well-rehearsed routines of a typical Sunday, with a bout of hymn-singing indulged to accompany Mammles’ enforced exercises between the sheets and Adam’s shouted insults to the “homosexual sideman” in the nearby church.
They are holed up in an attic cluttered with old furniture and rancid memories, lovingly designed by Cherry Truluck and inhabited by Marlowe in suburban splendour, wearing a jewelled toque and a sly Cockney demeanour. She resembles Gloria Swanson channelled through Max Wall scheming a come-back – at her own son’s expense.
Britton, meanwhile, gives full and glorious range to his technical prowess as a masterful comic actor, exchanging his day-time curator’s costume at the museum for an Admiral’s tunic and fantasies of being a devastating schoolmaster.
One minute he’s a bully, the next he’s kindly clipping his mum’s toenails (“We’ll sweep them up later,” is a line in the text, though Britton makes it sound improvised).
Both actors dance lightly, and deliciously, through their exchanges, and bravely play two scenes of sad acknowledgement and revelation with utter, audience-stilling sincerity.
It’s an off-beat treat, this play, not a total knock-out, but one with a special resonance for anyone who laments the passing of poetic writing in the theatre, or is worried about his or her own life expiring, unhappily, before that of ageing parents whose vivacity is undimmed, or even unexplained, with the passing years.