4000 Days (Park Theatre)
Alistair McGowan stars in Peter Quilter's comedy about memory loss
Wrangling over a man in a coma doesn't reflect well on either of the combatants, but in Peter Quilter's play a mother and a lover both battle to establish their ascendancy over Michael, who lies inert in a hospital bed for several weeks after collapsing at work.
And when he awakes, the shock of realising he has lost his memory for a period covering 11 years – 4,000 days – becomes the catalyst for a renewed fight to win his love.
Maggie Ollerenshaw is commanding as tough, thrice-married mother Carol, who smokes in hospital and refuses to mince her words. While she evidently feels she has triumphed in resuming a mother's place at her grown-up child's bedside, once Michael's former lover turns up expecting to play his role in the recovery process, it's quickly evident this is a battle she can't win.
Alistair McGowan has a wide-eyed appeal as the vulnerable Michael, and bravely shuffles around the stage in one of those dreadful open-backed hospital gowns (with a vest and boxers too) for the entire first half.
The text offers some tender moments between Michael and his former lover Paul (Daniel Weyman) but their emotional progress feels awkward, and the excruciating pain of a love lost through a partner's memory disappearing isn't communicated fully.
McGowan is on chirpy, observational form from almost the moment he wakes. While this offers some comic opportunities for quips and asides, it also suggests an uncomfortably glib approach to brain injury which surely cannot often resolve as quickly, even miraculously, as this one does.
There's a redemptive power in the idea that Paul realises how wrong he was to scotch Michael's ambitions as a painter when they were a couple. Yet the sudden flood of retrieved memories, and Michael's decision to return to his old life feels too contrived and sketchy to resonate.
Director Matt Aston suggests this play is right for today because it focuses on the important, simple things in life like family and art, rather than on technology, but it still feels wrong to suggest that the agony of memory loss should be seen as an opportunity to re-live life and correct past mistakes.
The relationships in 4000 Days feel stilted, when they should be touching and tender. Even Carol's dispirited observation that like all deserted mums, she will soon be alone again doesn't have much impact when we know she only used to see her son once in a blue moon before his illness.
4000 Days is billed as ‘a play about making things, yourself and others better'. While this is clearly a committed cast and a well-intentioned text, its premise isn't strong enough to carry it through.
4000 Days runs at the Park Theatre until 13 February.