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Review: While We're Here (Bush Theatre)

Barney Norris' new play is the first to open the new studio theatre at the Bush Theatre

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Andrew French and Tessa Peake-Jones in While We're Here
© Mark Douet

Barney Norris' new play is a low-key but quietly moving two-hander, that'll have you wistfully wondering what you're doing with your life. Carol and Eddie, former lovers, have a chance encounter in a park in Havant; it's 20 years since they last saw each other. While Carol is more settled and set in her ways than ever, Eddie is sleeping rough. Carol lets him crash in her daughter's room; she hardly visits or contacts her mother anymore anyway.

Norris is excellent at catching the cadences of everyday conversation – both Eddie's flights of madcap-ambition, and Carol's boring work chat, are entertaining to hear, as this pair tentatively reconnect. Although they fizz at seeing each other again, two chemicals combining, they are very different essential elements: he brims with manic restless energy and unreal idealism, she's grounded and pragmatic, clucking round him, but guarded in her homey domesticity too. He's a nomad; she's barely left Havant. Life has taken them very far apart, and then thrown them again.

Alice Hamilton's delicately directed production is the first in the Bush's new studio space - appropriately small and cosy for a drama that takes place just in a living room. Tessa Peake-Jones is terrific as Carol, capturing her mustn't-grumble, tea-making cheeriness in the face of a life that seems painfully empty. She's put up walls to stop that pain; problem is, they've blocked out any real joy too. But Peake-Jones lets us see the tiny flashes of twinkling happiness that Eddie's arrival seems to let through the chinks.

At first, Andrew French as Eddie seems to be overdoing it, too big, but the part soon settles. And he is excellent at slowly revealing Eddie's darker side: a troubled childhood and mental health struggles that have seen him never trust people, always fleeing the failures of his life. Norris' portrait of this damaged man is beautifully written, allowing him to be as contradictory as humans are: his upbeat energy turns out to cover a deep anguish at the pointlessness of life and the inevitability of death. Yet French delivers speeches about his depression with such life-force that the play rarely feels like a downer.

It's not till its final moments of heartbreak that Norris really turns the knife, and I'm not sure it's quite earned. Of course a conventional happy ending for these two, very different characters would be cheesy, but I wasn't wholly convinced by Carol's final, fearful disavowal of human connection either; it seemed a moment more calculated to wring the feels out of the audience than really a truth. But it's slightly hard to judge because Norris gives us very little about the couple's first connection. That, surely, is the truly unlikely encounter, not this chance meeting – it's hard to imagine Carol ever befriending Eddie, but there's no attempt to explain or capture what drew this improbable couple together in the first place, or how their relationship worked.

Nonetheless, While We're Here forms a lovely, tender meditation on how quickly time passes, and what we do (or don't do) with it. The dialogue is simply terrific – funny, believable, heart-clenchingly sad – and is animated with great care by both performers. It will make you want to open your heart, to reach out, only connect – oh, and to call your mum.

While We're Here runs at the Bush Theatre until 27 May, and tours the UK until 17 June.