FringeReview UK 2018
Lovesong’s directed by Kirsty Elmer, also known for her set, costume and sound design too. This set’s in black, white, grey coloured only by clothes and five peaches, the design’s a quadrant split into a bedroom with black floor and kitchen chequered black and white. Steve Coulson’s lighting is offset by Adam Hewitt’s composition where Elmer’s sound is bolstered by an evocative video. Raf Parrsie follows the original production’s black-and-white starling murmurations.
This is a surprise if you know Abi Morgan. She’s been happily lured back to theatre a few times. Acclaimed for The Iron Lady and Suffragette, TV’s The Hour, The Split and much else, her most recent play The Mistress Contract premiered at the Royal Court in 2014, with a Donmar revival of her 1990 Splendour (about a dictator’s wife), in 2015. It’s a refreshingly unique achievement too, in that women usually lead these works. Indeed Splendour’s cast is an all-women quartet. Lovesong’s different.
Like The Mistress Contract, Lovesong from 2011 negotiates sexual politics more directly, and over a relationship spanning decades. Whilst The Mistress Contract dramatizes a real-life story with a woman in control, Lovesong gifts us forty-six years from 1965-2011 (it’s precisely notated in clothing here); and how we get from a sexist pig of a dentist to gentle, considerate old lover; a warmly spirited sexy patronised woman to one who sibyl-like embraces her life and ensures her husband does too.
And there’s a story of self-education fought tooth and broken nail for, since one couple traverse twenty years where the older pair travel months. But even more, it’s a tender love story of a couple – remaining involuntarily childless – who remain loving, seen from turned-on youth and turned-in age. Morgan’s tenderest trick is having an old woman enter a wardrobe and her younger self walk out, held by her husband as he’ll one day become; and of her young husband ghosted in an embrace by his once and future wife.
So it’s not entirely about pigs, but yes it is too. This production directed by Kirsty Elmer highlights that in its casting. Margaret and William, or later Maggie and Billy, are the same couple played by a quartet: two actors (Sally Lord, Robert Purchese), two older ones (Nikki Dunsford, Michael Bulman).
Elmer’s famed for her phenomenal set, costume and sound design too. This set’s a masterpiece: in black, white, grey coloured only by clothes and five peaches, the design’s a quadrant split into a bedroom with black floor and kitchen chequered black and white. There’s a surround to both of black with white-stencilled floral designs where peaches lie to be gathered, a startling fleck of blush and orange. As the dramatist points out, T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock underscores Morgan’s vision to an extent. ‘Dare I eat a peach?’ In this production it’s dared.
The bed and side-table with wardrobe are dove grey, as is the dresser; and sink with fridge for the kitchen along with table and chairs. As with the original 2011 production, people vanish and reappear Narnia-like, albeit at different ages, through the wardrobe. It’s one of the very finest NVT sets I’ve seen, easily comparable to Elmer’s one for Churchill’s Love & Information she directed here in July 2016.
The costumes quietly stun too: period ones for Lord, and sometimes matching (there’s no logic, but this is symbolism) where the two women sport the same white-with-floral-pattern 1970s-style dress, and the men the same blue shirt, trousers though light and dark beige. Lord’s time-travel from 1965 all headband and bright mid-sixties red and blues to mid-1980s russets as she sets off for a conference, tint the time-telling, make it more tangible than mention of ‘bumper stickers’ can.
Steve Coulson’s muted lighting is offset by Adam Hewitt’s composition where Elmer’s sound (occasionally sawn-off rather than faded by the operators) is bolstered by an evocative video. Raf Parrsie follows the original production’s black-and-white starling murmurations – speeded up to abstract patterns. There’s comic inserts: sprinkler-systems which – as Dunsford and Bulman tell us – starlings imitate, like everything else.
Elmer stamps her vision of years and two editions of the couple as they sashay through each other. We start with Bulman’s consummate Bill in a beautifully-modulated voice (he spent his high-profile career in opera). He’s reminiscing, standing downstage having left his Telegraph crossword (which never does get worked at, there’s a lack of this kind of stage-business). He starts with teeth; only later is the heartfelt reason given: ‘When I clean my mouth, I always clean them twice. This takes time. I use a little brush. I work between every molar, like a tiny chimney sweep.’ His wife’s anxious on the point. Strange, given Bill’s a dentist.
‘What happened to the time?’ And it unspools. There’s discussion of time, particular when William fears he’s losing Margaret, whom he deemed unqualified even for library-work, to more intellectually-minded men (she’d fancied him at first when she saw him reading Hemingway). Years later William distils his (desperate-to-impress) rote-Einstein into the more plangent: ‘Time is linear. When we die. I think we die. But until we do… I want that time to be with you.’
Purchese, who’s impressed as near-psychotic handsome Alpha males a couple of times, takes on the more restrained William. Elmer capitalizes on Purshese’s capacity to snarl and snap sexism, sneering at Margaret’s aspirations to independence. He’s brought this on himself, taking out a huge loan he’s not consulted Margaret on, forcing her to conclude a need for them both to earn; especially when tragically she can’t fall pregnant despite his hollow confidence. Morgan’s deliberately hazy: we don’t know if it’s miscarriage or that William’s infertile. Lord’s ferocious then melts in a sexy clinch. The only problem with this first row is it leaves nowhere to go vocally, though we never experience quite such an eruption again.
Overall though there’s a sinewy sexy snaking in the younger couple’s love for each other. Their vocal qualities are notably sharper than the consummate Dunsford and Bulman, and occasionally we might wonder how one became the other. There’s no doubting the physicality and resemblances Purchese and Bulman suggest, though there’s one crucial cue missed.
This is when after several climactic revelations the final (in linear terms) scene between the younger couple leave a crestfallen mid-1980s William to murmur in a role inverted: ‘Dinner will be in half an hour.’ At this point it’d help if Purchese modulated to the older Bulman’s gentleness; Morgan clearly intends it as the bridge.
The multiplying of how each couple morphs and cross-relates seems infinite. It’s a sharp tender shock when Dunsford, superb in gliding voice and body across in an almost disembodied way, takes either Bulman or Purchese in her arms: both comfort and challenge. The slow burn of watching their sinewy and time-cracked dance is bewitching and beautifully achieved by all four. On sequence has them all gently exchanging places in bed, getting out, lifting the duvet and settling it on the other couple.
Dunsford’s arc is agonizingly slow for dramatic reasons. Her voice, seraphic, beautifully-placed more than complements Bulman. She too has had a music career, firstly in ballet, and the extraordinary privilege of watching these two interact is one of this season’s highlights – not that the younger pair are any less watchable, but it’s a different quality.
Dunsford’s Maggie is ill, there’s all kinds of sortings-out she embarks on for downsizing, and like Bulman at the start, each of these attic clearances morphs into whatever past an item conjures. Margaret’s gift of a skull to William, or the gift of friends.
Again it’s Lord and Dunsford who bring a neighbour or two into the mix, and it’s the son of one of them they determine to do something remarkable for: he’s now in 2011 forty-six with a family. Sometimes these others make William jealous, sometimes it’s the other way round with the blonde au pair somewhere in the early 1970s. Elmer and the younger cast make pointed use of period mores and attitudes, though the metamorphosing of Lord to Dunsford is trickier than the males.
It’s fascinating to watch time contract, a childless couple ‘facing one another over a cooling cup of coffee with nothing left to say’ but that’s as Lord and Dunsford reassure their male counterparts, because everything has been said. At one point Dunsford reassures the distressed Bulman. No wonder many openly wept at the Frantic Assembly premiere.
Time must have a stop; perhaps. You’ll need to see the denouement. There’s some instructions, particularly about teeth, from Maggie. But Bill’s the dentist… The lighting, occasionally a sliver off perfection (once leaving an actor partially in shadow), plays sensitively in a series of quick light-ups as the younger couple enact snatched memories.
Announced for one hour forty, this performance ran ten minutes longer. It does admittedly feel too slowly paced. Other productions have elicited snappier shifts – and crucially variety – of rhythm. Elmer’s decided on a dream-tempo consistency, where black-and-white recedes us to dream territory, spliced with rare colour. Nevertheless, it’s a heartstoppingly quiet antidote to torpor in a Heatwave, where monochrome calm stills like a Dutch interior. Lovesong remains a highlight of the season’s productions, a mostly wonderful celebration of this rare gift from Morgan. Let’s have more drama like this.