REVIEW: Visitors, Arcola Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Visitors: Robin Soans and Linda Bassett. Picture: Alastair Muir
Visitors: Robin Soans and Linda Bassett. Picture: Alastair Muir

Arcola Theatre, to transfer to the West End
29 March 2014.
5 Stars

Towards the end of the first scene in the second Act of Barney Norris’ exquisite new play, Visitors, the wonderful country Grandmother, Edie, who is slowly succumbing to dementia, rounds on her unintentionally cruel but unremittingly selfish son, Stephen, and in a torrent of repressed recrimination says:

What if I die and I still haven’t managed to have even one conversation with you?

In the split-second of horror which follows, the dementia takes control of Edie’s mind and she completely forgets what has just happened and who she is with. Her fury is suddenly replaced with uncertainty, first querulous then timid.

It is a shattering moment of real, human drama, profoundly sad, completely understandable and utterly unforgettable.

The premiere season of Norris’ play, expertly directed by Alice Hamilton, is currently touring the UK, having just finished a season at the Arcola. It is easily one of the best productions of a new play seen in the last few years. It relies upon nothing except character, situation, wonderful writing and exceptional acting. There are no flashy sets, glamorous costumes, revolves or directorial tricks of the trade.

It is simply plain old fashioned theatrical alchemy. And utterly glorious.

The play concerns a couple who have spent their entire married life on a small farm. Arthur worked every day in the wheat field or tending the chickens, repairing everything they need (motors, furniture, whatever) while Edie raised their son, did the household chores, cooked the food and saw to Arthur’s comfort. Occasionally, they took a holiday, although not as often as Edie might secretly wish.

Stephen, their son, turned his back on his parents and their dream for him to carry on the farm, married and took up a career in life insurance, clearly embarrassed by his parents and their simple life. But as his marriage hits the rocks, Edie starts the decline into dementia and Stephen seeks solutions which will be the best for him, while ostensibly thinking about the welfare of his parents. Into the mix comes a live-in carer, Kate, and her presence reveals ugly truths.

It’s a play set firmly in the English countryside, but its themes and the insight into human fragility and relationships it provides are universal.

The most difficult part in the play, the one that would be easiest to present as a caricature or a one-dimensional cipher, is that of the son but Simon Muller’s performance is fascinating, incredibly complex and multi-layered; practically perfect in every way. You dislike him, then despise him, then come to understand him. His performance is astonishing, ravishing in detail and glowing with truth. A detailed portrait of isolation, pain and social awkwardness. Muller is completely triumphant here.

He is helped considerably by the luminous Linda Bassett, who follows up her stellar turn in the Donmar’s Roots with this quite quite different study of another simple woman whose life has been lived in the country. She too is exactly right, in every way, finding the gentle humour in Edie’s twinkle, the pure joy in her relationship with Arthur and her no-nonsense ability to accept her fate, with real courage and dignity, not to mention a fair deal of raucous humour. The moments when she taunts her son, pretending to have forgotten something, are pure gold.

She has so many moments of excellence that they cannot all be cited, but two that particularly resonate are: her heartfelt kiss for her husband on her way to bed, a kiss that completely encapsulates their life-long love and the eternal nature of their companionship (a truly heart-breaking moment); and the moment when she reaches out to touch her son’s back in tenderness and motherly love, demonstrating that despite his actions and deeds, she cannot but adore him. A wonderful, wonderful performance.

Robin Soans’s Arthur matches Bassett’s Edie in every way. They are totally in sync with each other, a truly harmonious set of performances. You watch them read each other, understand each other without words being exchanged; they have the same thoughts, the same understandings, the same ideals. It is beautiful to watch, a sensitive evocation of shared lives and understandings. And his relationship with his son is separately carved out: it is tough and tender, and more disappointed. There is a wonderful moment when Soans opines that men never want to talk to each other, another when he grieves that the dementia is not happening to him rather than Edie. It’s another full, ripe and entirely convincing performance.

The final cast member, Eleanor Wyld, is also superb and, in some ways, she has the hardest task. Her part is not as richly written, as detailed in dialogue or description, as the others – yet, Wyld makes her outsider character, the carer who briefly interrupts their lives with understanding and kindness, real and complete. Her scenes with Edie are delicious and her painful interactions with Stephen meticulously guarded and riven with uncertainty and fear.

There is absolutely nothing not to like here. Francesca Reidy’s simple but effective set gently but resolutely establishes the lives of Arthur and Edie, the location of the farm and the simple sturdy times they have seen together.

Norris’ achievement cannot be understated. The language is often gloriously poetic and there are evocative sections which deal with concepts of beauty, the fragility of the mind, the complexity of human relationships and the horror that is dementia. It’s insightful too, especially when Edie wonders what the difference is between dementia and ordinary life: is it dementia not to remember the names of all those who sat near you at school?

This is an extraordinary play performed and directed with consummate skill and incredible insight. It should transfer to the West End and be seen by anyone who has a family.

The final line will stay with me a long time:

And you are in all of my dreams because you were there in my life as well.

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