If you’re looking to have good cry on a cold winter’s evening, Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre have just the stimulus you’ll need to be sobbing into your red wine by the end of the night. Lovesong is the story of one couple’s relationship, from their first post-marital steps of immigration from the UK to the US, through forty years and to the end of their time together. Various highs and numerous lows culminate in a deeply sad conclusion that is sure to touch many, especially senior subscribers.
Written in 2011 by respected British playwright Abi Morgan, the screenwriter of The Iron Lady, Suffragette and co-writer of Shame, she’s perhaps lesser known in this country for her plays, but Lovesong is amongst over a dozen theatrical works in her portfolio. For this reason, the dialogue and plot structure of this play is engaging and assured.
We meet William/Billy (Dylan Watson/Paul English) and Margaret/Maggie (Maddy Jevic/Jillian Murray) in two concurrent time streams. William and Margaret are young lovers setting off on the lives together with a ‘leap of faith’. They move to a small town in the US and William sets up his dental practice. Naturally, it’s difficult at first and the couple find it hard to make ends meet, but William doesn’t want Margaret to get a job that she’ll only have to quit once their babies come along. Forty years later, it’s apparent that their lives never were graced by children, but somehow they have managed to stay together. Maggie isn’t well and their relationship is strained, but through reflections on their youth they contemplate the strength of their fidelity to one another and the interlocking of their lives.
From the outset, Morgan’s play is hauntingly poetic, with its backyard setting graced by a peach tree full of over-ripe fruit allegorically falling to waste. And just like a soft peach, at times the story can be a bit cloying, but that might have a bit to do with the fact that this production is lacking a key element that the original focused upon – physical theatre. Frantic Assembly, the company this play was originally written for, are famous for their physical staging. Those who saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime will be familiar with how their unique approach elevated that production to another level, often quite literally. Choreographed actions are a key component of their productions, creating an almost balletic structure, which adds infinite value to the story that one can’t help but feel the loss of here.
Music hasn’t been left out of this staging however as Gemma Turvey has composed an eloquently beautiful score, performed on-stage superbly by cellist Campbell Banks. It adds invaluable depth to the production and is an outstanding work in itself, it just makes one wish even more that some movement were choreographed to it.
Set and Costume Designer Adrienne Chisholm has made the best use she can of the Red Stitch theatre’s intimate space, keeping things quite simple, and while our characters’ bed does look extraordinarily uncomfortable, it is cunningly integrated into the design. The swift way Director Denny Lawrence changes scenes and interweaves them with one another is deftly handled and he has created many beautiful moments of contemplation as William and Maggie reflect and interact with the younger versions of themselves. The crumbling away of their lives together is definitely apparent, but a greater drive for physical fragility would aid in comprehension and empathy. Clare Springett’s subtly detailed lighting design enhances the atmosphere greatly.
Playing the same character at a different life stage simultaneously with another actor isn’t an easy task but this quartet make it seem simply natural, especially Watson and English as William/Billy. Thanks no doubt go to Dialect Coach Jean Goodwin for the keenly defined and well-matched accents. Watson has wonderful youthful energy, bringing vitality to his early scenes and maintaining empathy with the character even as he goes through stages of resentment with his wife. English as the aged version of the same man is more hardened and seemingly stoic, before delivering a heartbreakingly impassioned vow that his life will not go on without his wife in it.
As young Margaret, Jevic cunningly portrays the frustrations of a woman’s place in society some forty-odd years ago, without a child or a vocational career to focus on. Margaret’s fidelity and rightly placed mistrust of her husband are fully realised and the love that bonds them for forty years is beautifully established. In her elderly incarnation, Murray delivers a truly touching performance as a woman coming to terms with her mortality and reconciling what that means for her marriage. Murray walks an elegant line between strength and fragility. At times this does come across as vitality though, which works against the premise somewhat.
This isn’t the sort of production to go into blindly, the themes of mortality and regret could land hard on those not expecting them, as Morgan’s script pulls no punches in its conclusion. For that reason, it’s clear to see why this script appealed to the team at Red Stitch, and why they chose to include the beautiful addition of a live cello score. Certainly, this is still a poetic and heartstring-pulling piece of writing, but one can’t help but wonder how much extra depth and haunting beauty can be achieved with this work when it’s given the choreographic treatment it was created for.