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Beautiful Thing (Manchester)

Salt, Root & Roe

By • West End
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Taking its cue, and its title, from an eerie poem by Dylan Thomas, Tim Price’s haunting new play – only his second – deals in ghosts and fables blowing through the north coast of Pembrokeshire, where two elderly sisters are locked in childish reminiscence.

They are twins, and one of them, Iola (Anna Calder-Marshall), is fading fast with dementia. The other, Anest (Anna Carteret), is coping as best she can, and humouring her sibling, while her daughter, Menna (Imogen Stubbs), arrives from Bristol in the middle of a crisis.

The play is both harsh and lyrical, and is an ideal inaugural production in the second season of Donmar Trafalgar in the small Trafalgar studio to showcase the work of young directors, in this instance, Hamish Pirie, a resident assistant at the Donmar and a determined advocate of Price’s play.

Pirie and designer Chloe Lamford create a womb-like setting under a translucent marine canopy that Anna Watson’s lighting can magically transform to embrace scenes of recrimination, story-telling, a picnic on the beach with a game of senior hopscotch, and domestic face-offs in the remote cottage filled with bric-a-brac and cardboard boxes.

Multiple tensions are shrewdly wound up: between the two sisters; between Anest and Menna, who is obsessively hygienic, wearing latex gloves and cheap clothes, with her own troubles at home; and between Menna and the local policeman (Roger Evans) who represents her youth and the life she has left behind.

All the performances are beautifully observed, especially Calder-Marshall’s as the increasingly fractious Iola, turning from wide-eyed eccentricity (dropping Menna’s mobile in the teapot, feeding invisible chickens) to ugly vituperation and violence.

This really is what happens with amnesia and Alzheimer’s. And Carteret radiates concern and self-sacrifice as she ties herself back into her sister’s life with their old skipping rope and Stubbs’ tight-lipped, accommodating Menna is left to ponder a way of life, and a cache of stories, she has exchanged for “progress” and urban reality.

It’s not a chart-buster, exactly, this play, but it seeps into your soul, and Pirie announces himself as a director of Peter Gill-like subtlety and sensitivity; it’s refreshing, too, to encounter a piece - running for 100 minutes, without an interval - that is honestly written, authentically Welsh and bravely musical.


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