THEATRE / Discovering a world of interiors: Paul Taylor reviews Michael Frayn's new play, Here, at the Donmar Warehouse
Friday 06 August 1993
Progress with the interior decor of the little flat is not facilitated by the conceptual knots they keep getting tied up in or by the mind-dazing imponderables the young man has a habit of chucking into the conversation. After all, were you the sort of person who worried that if the earth had cooled down slightly differently 5,000 million years ago, you might be sitting in a different room with a different partner, well, the here-and-now would be a bit of a minefield - assuming, of course, that you could locate it.
Here is reminiscent of two previous works by Frayn, at opposite ends of his career. It partly reminds you, in format, of The Two of Us, the four one-act plays produced in 1970 for Lynn Redgrave and Richard Briers. But there's a subtle undertow of sadness to the young couple's doomed efforts here as they try to improvise a life where, just like the second hand of a clock, they can live completely in the moment - moment by moment. This activity and mood recall the futile cerebrations of the female philosopher and civil servant in Frayn's recent novel A Landing on the Sun. A Strategy Unit of two, set up by the government to look into 'the quality of life', they engage in prolonged and involved tutorials on the use of the word 'happy', until it dawns on them that the particular experience of happiness is there to be grasped, now, with one another. The fact that the young people in Here have no professional stake in philosophy (though they are clearly students of some description) gives their circular wranglings a funnier and more poignant extempore quality.
The comedy is very much a three-hander. Frayn contrasts the position of the young couple - irritating people, but played with a lovely, saving charm by Iain Glen and Teresa Banham - with the situation of their elderly widowed landlady, Pat, to whom Brenda Bruce bequeaths her wonderful sly air of being simultaneously out to lunch and right by her desk. For the youngsters, when they move in, the flat is a tabula rasa, the future a vertigo of choice. For Pat, the room and the rest of her house is a museum of anecdotal evidence concerning a life she is glad to have got through (or so she claims).
She makes no effort to disguise her thorough lack of envy for those who are on the brink of life rather than its butt-end. Not that she leaves the couple alone much. Phil scarcely has to get an erection before she's knocking at the door, so conceiving a baby as a solution to the couple's existential shilly-shallying is not all that feasible a project. Pat foists her dead husband's favourite old chair on them. A drag to have to drag it out of hiding every time she pops in. Then you notice that Phil starts to grow attached to it. Will he turn into an Eric? Will the couple one day end up in dispute over the metaphysical right-of-way of their Zimmerframes?
Michael Blakemore's fine production expertly keeps the mood upbeat but has sufficient flexibility to accommodate moments of wistful profundity or panic such as the mysterious episode, when Cath can't find Phil though he's there in the flat, or speeches like this one of Pat's, about the in-between rows part of her marriage: 'It wasn't like anything . . . There it was. Then there it wasn't. It doesn't last long, Phil, I'll tell you that, whatever it's like.'
'Here' continues until 11 September at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC1 (Box office: 071- 867 1150).
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