Review: Trestle (Southwark Playhouse)

Stewart Pringle’s Papatango Prize-winner receives its world premiere

Stewart Pringle's two-hander about love and loneliness in advancing age won this year's Papatango New Writing Prize. In this premiere production, you can see exactly why. It's wittily and cleverly written, its series of short scenes telling a story of some depth and meaning.

Its focus is the developing relationship between Harry (Gary Lilburn) and Denise (Connie Walker) who met at a Yorkshire temperance hall. He's a widower, filling his days with good works – "I'm the wheels in the meals on wheels" – and coffees in the garden centre. She's a bit younger, seeking to improve herself with her book group and her reading.

On Frankie Bradshaw's wonderfully evocative set, its limp stage curtains and scarred magnolia walls vividly familiar, affection blossoms between the end of Harry's improvement committee meetings and the start of Denise's Zumba class. After some initial confusion, where he thinks she is the cleaner ("It's this coat. I thought that when I bought it"), they help each other fold down the trestle table and push away the chairs.

The swiftness of the scenes in which they chat about their lives, comparing sandwich flavours, and gradually revealing more and more of themselves, militates against the play developing any flow. For all its brevity – 85 minutes straight through – it sometimes feels constrained by the modesty of its concept.

Nevertheless, it is closely and lovingly observed, creating a sense of these people and their lives – and the actors respond with performances of revealing naturalism. Lilburn's Harry is all puffed up formality which disguises tender vulnerability beneath. His comic delivery – "I'm a widower, not Dracula" – is matched by the sweetness he conveys, the way his reserve (he can't even hit a table with the gavel he has bought) stops him declaring his true feelings.

As Denise, Walker seems initially more contented. It is she who tries to solve Harry's isolation by suggesting activities and inviting him to meet her friends. But her inability to speak her mind, her lack of confidence in her own opinions, the disappointments of her life so quickly hidden behind her bright smile and quick wisecracks, are beautifully shown in delicate gestures and revealing asides.

The ending is slightly unsatisfactory, but for most of the duration the performances and Cathal Cleary's confident direction sweep you through this unusual and thoughtful portrayal of middle-aged romance.

Trestle runs at Southwark Playhouse until 25 November.