The survival of the fittest

So Long Life | Tobacco Factory, Bedminster, Bristol
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The Independent Culture

If you shamelessly exploit old age as a dramatic subject and present it as a cross between a roguish joke and a sob story, the West End will roll out its scuffed red carpet for you.

If you shamelessly exploit old age as a dramatic subject and present it as a cross between a roguish joke and a sob story, the West End will roll out its scuffed red carpet for you.

If you look at it with humane, unsentimental objectivity, well, life - for you and your play - can begin and end out of town. The spectre of this truth is raised at the moment, courtesy of that fine veteran actress, Stephanie Cole.

Last year, she performed in Ronald Harwood's Quartet, a show about four former opera stars who wind up in the same twilight home. It's a work that should be reported to Age Concern for its facetious sentimentality. Ms Cole now takes centre stage in So Long Life, another play about advanced years and looming deadlines. Only this time, the author is Peter Nichols, the most scandalously neglected of our senior dramatists.

The play opens at the Tobacco Factory in his native Bristol. This is an honourable starting point for his latest piece which focuses on a family of dispersed Bristolians.

It has the distinction of being the first play to inspire me to pen the word "Tinkerbell" next to the name "Beckett" in my notebook. Let me explain. In a manner that makes you regularly wince with laughing recognition, So Long Life dramatises the kind of gruesome birthday get-together that is the continuation of family warfare by different means.

The occasion is in ostensible honour of Alice, the 85-year-old matriarch. She has had a disabling fall in her flat and needs to be persuaded to give up her independence. But who'll take her in? By a nice, typically undeceived irony, it's her daughter-in-law, an officious social worker, for whom charity begins anywhere but at home, who leads the campaign to get the old woman institutionalised.

One of the main theatrical conceits (not served well in Jenny Eastop's low-definition production) is that the light on stage fluctuates from glaring to full black-out in a fashion that is index-linked to the drifting consciousness of Ms Cole's marvellously manipulative, stupid-shrewd, and fearful Alice. The light jerks to its brightest whenever Alice has seemingly dropped off, at which points she springs from her chair and treats us to a view of herself that her family can never know. The device, which allows dramatist to show us the unregenerate private spirit masked by the physical frailty, is from Beckett out of JM Barrie.

In Nichols's unputdownable diaries, just published, there's a shrewd comment about Beckett, prompted by a performance of Krapp's Last Tape and Not I: "He continues to pursue his doomed campaign of purifying the theatre. Which is like being a vegetarian in an abattoir". In So Long Life, there's some tricky shifting between a near-Beckettian existentialism and the black comedy of sharp, up-to-date social observation. To adopt Nichols's image, it's a piece that will appeal both to carnivores and veggies, without perhaps fully satisfying either. It also has to be said, though, that the truthfulness and skill of the writing frequently take the breath away. So Long Life deserves a longer life than this run.

 

To 14 Oct (0117-987 7877)

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