Sutton Arts company is as inspired in its sourcing of new work to perform as it is in producing it. Having unearthed the little known gem “Mind Games” by Anthony Horrowitz last year, this year they have found Visitors, the debut play by Barney Norris, first performed in 2014 for which he won the Critics’ Circle Award and Offie Award for Most Promising Playwright. Only twenty nine years old, Oxford graduate Norris is also a published poet and novelist.
Remarkably his youth has not stopped him from tackling a story which is ostensibly about dementia and old age, but is underpinned by an examination of love.
Set in a farmhouse on the edge of Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, we are introduced to pensioner couple, farmer Arthur, and Edie, in the home they have lived in throughout their long marriage. They are to enjoy no balmy sunset to their lives, as Edie’s memory, and health, deteriorate. Carer Kate, with problems of her own, tries to make things better, awkward son Stephen makes things worse, as he pushes his parents to sell up and put his mother into a care home.
But this is no depressing two hours watching the misery of others. It is much harder to write interestingly about happiness than it is about misery, and it is the former task that Norris undertakes, and succeeds in.
Norris was inspired by two themes when writing this play, the love his grandparents had for each other, and the moral questions raised by the financial collapse of 2008. What do we value? What really matters? His lyrical prose subtly juxtaposes with the jarring dislocation of dementia, drawing humour and wit, as well as evoking poignancy and lament. The beautiful Wiltshire countryside is an ever present and tranquil backdrop to Edie’s developing dementia. A holiday on the Dorset coast is meticulously and fondly recreated, a memory of love, happiness and moment, the image of a white wedding dress cascading like champagne over a waterfall quite exquisite. Things which cannot be bought, and can never be lost. Individualism is eschewed in favour of self-sacrifice, and sharing.
Edie and Arthur’s generation preceded the “greed is good” era with Arthur working the land, and material possessions secondary to their lives. As such their story is, in part, a snapshot of a time almost gone, of rural life, and of distances. The distances between birthplace bound parents and upwardly mobile offspring, and the distances and silence that dementia can create. It is also about the value, and joy, of sharing, and of marriage and of love. As Edie starts to ebb away those virtues are thrown into only greater relief. Norris boldly examines love beyond lust, infatuation, longing, meeting, and parting, into the experience of what loving someone looks like, what it means. Although the temporal virtues of belonging and permanence fade, a sense of the glory of love takes its place.
Director Barrie Atchison is associated by numbers with his skill at producing farce. Here he demonstrates his grasp of pace in quite different ways. Silence, gaps, pauses, and distance are all used to profound effect. His task was not made easy by an absence of stage directions, props and set scheme by the author, the script being presented to him almost as a radio play. However this has afforded him maximum leeway in putting his own stamp on a production which could be subject to quite different interpretations. He delivers a drama of beauty, part funny, part tender, part lament for loss of people and a way of life. A life in which we are all just “visitors”.
Dexter Whitehead plays Stephen with great sensitivity taking him from thoughtless grasping offspring to a denouement which garners our sympathy as his fortunes shift. Carer Kate (Kira Mack) injects youthful vitality into her role, countering Arthur’s experience of working on the land with her own “woofing” ( working on organic farms!). But it is Len Schofield as Arthur, and Dorothy Goodwin as Edie who are the beating heart of this production, and as Edie’s physical and mental faculties fade, so her insight increases, culminating in a beautiful, laconic, elegiac closing soliloquy, faultlessly and tenderly delivered as the stage spotlight fell, then dimmed on her.
Visitors is a hymn to love, and a plea for us to reassess and recalibrate our lives. It runs till Saturday 19th March.
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.