Edinburgh Fringe 2011
A profoundly moving and genuinely funny meditation on grief and loss as Flo and Jimmy, a couple in late middle age find themselves both united and divided in mourning: “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf” transferred to a Scots sitting room.
In times such as these, of conflict abroad and unrest at home, it is perhaps inevitable that violence and grief should play such a consistent part among the themes at play in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Even the plethora of tribute acts and adaptations of classic films into stage form seem to hint at some need for reassurance amidst the uncertainty – social, political and economic – that threatens to engulf us. Gerda Stevenson, writer, director and co-star of this remarkable two-hander, has reduced this uncertainty to the microcosm of an emotionally paralysed couple during Wimbledon weekend and in doing so has given us a vision, if not of a personal hell, then certainly of a personal purgatory.
On the surface, the characters of Flo (Stevenson) and Jimmy (the effortlessly charming Dave Anderson) belong to a gentle, domestic, sitcom. He is a recently retired toilet seat salesman, dreamy yet indolent, with dreams of taking up the saxophone or climbing the Matterhorn without ever leaving the sofa. She is an overworked nurse, splitting her downtime between caring for her sick mother and clearing up the remains of Jimmy’s low-level sloth, particularly his mounting collection of newspapers. However, it doesn’t take long for the true nature of their relationship to seep out between its cracks. Both are still mourning the loss of their son, three years previously, during the Afghan conflict: he develops tiny obsessions – the latest being Roger Federer – while she busies herself as much as possible and refuses to watch the news. As Wimbledon fortnight progresses, leading to the inevitable British capitulation at semi-final stage, so the pressure between the two slowly builds until the cracks explode into fragments, just as Federer meets Murray.
To go into much more narrative detail would risk stripping this play of its power. That is not to say that it delights in subversion. Quite the opposite, it takes the familiar and magnifies it, using apparently trivial details and their implications (Jimmy’s newspaper collection, for example) to transform Flo and Jimmy’s dilemma from the domestic to the tribal (a beautiful scene involving face paint and the Scots and Swiss flags) to the global as they both seek a reason for their son’s apparently senseless death. All this on a set that is both economical in its detail and yet naturalistic, save for a five minute coda. Scenes are divided by a shadowy figure playing the saxophone, the significance of whom becomes apparent towards the end in a revelation that left this reviewer with tears in his eyes.
Comparisons to “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf” are inevitable – the couple locked in bickering grief, the unspoken secrets, the mysterious visitor at the door, the loss of a son – however, these are not the games and routines of a pair of acid-laced intellectuals. Instead this is both a gentler and more immediate sense of hurt, made all the more heart-aching for the sheer mundanity of this couple’s lives. These are ordinary people in a pain we don’t envy but which will inevitably ensnare us all. It takes a skilled pair of actors to take us into this world and carry us through it and it is with delicate comic timing that Stevenson and Anderson hold us by our collective hand. Anderson in particular is a delight, an apparently easy going man with a rod of steel running through him. The scene where he orders and receives an over-sized Roger Federer cardigan is one of a number of small comic delights.
Indeed, if anything, the script allows Jimmy to have things too much his own way. He gets to be the centre of the comic business, with Flo almost acting as his foil: a slightly bad-tempered straight woman. This also applies to the play’s more serious aspects. It is Jimmy who understands the geo-political significance of the Afghan conflict, it is Jimmy who offers love without having it returned, and it is Jimmy who gets his wish without ever apparently changing from the man we met at the start of the play: all the narrative – the character arc, as they say – seems to be Flo’s. This small caveat aside, Federer vs Murray is a truly joyous, tearful and thought-provoking piece of work and I urge you to see it while you can.