Theatre review: Home, Arcola Theatre, London

 

Home was written in 1970 for the rarefied viola and oboe partnership of Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud and it hasn't been seen in London since the revival with Richard Briers and Paul Eddington nearly twenty years ago. Now David Storey's funny, painful and compassionate tone poem of a play is given a fresh and persuasive airing by Amelia Sears in which, for better and worse, Paul Copley and Jack Shepherd impress us more with the psychological realism and insight of their performances than as a duo of master instrumentalists.

Naomi Dawson's excellent design in the Arcola's studio space creates an intimate and valuably non-voyeuristic or them-and-us environment, positioning the audience on four sides of a sunlit flagstone patio that is skirted by grass, strewn with autumnal leaves and bounded by brick walls and trellises. We could be in a country house hotel. Copley's dapper, jaunty Jack and Shepherd's dreamy, fastidious Harry engage in desultory small talk, full ellipses, bizarre non-sequiturs, and inconsequential anecdotes about Jack's seemingly infinite range of relatives. The growing suspicion that they are patients in an asylum is confirmed by the arrival of two coarse, raucous women who openly allude to not being allowed shoe laces and padded cells and by the intermittent, faintly menacing presence of Alfred (Joseph Arkley), a brain-damaged youth who practises a strong-man act on the lightweight garden furniture with a ferocious, pent-up anguish. 

The piece is performed without an interval here which perhaps blurs the musicality of its structure and the brisk pace is too unvaried. But the production is more even-handed in its sympathies than earlier outings. Copley and Shepherd beautifully convey how the courtly banalities of the men are a protective shield from truths too agonising to acknowledge.  The women, with their invasive questions and disarming insinuations, have all the social delicacy of sniffer dogs.  But Tessa Peake-Jones and Linda Broughton adroitly signal the lonely courage as well as the grotesquerie of the combative, beadily direct Marjorie and the lewdly cackling Kathleen who sees every remark as a double entendre. There's no more moving moment in the piece than when Shepherd, reduced to tears by Broughton's prying, nonetheless forces himself through gallantry to hold her proffered hand.

The speeches towards the end about the great achievements of our island race which suggest that Home is an elegy for a nation in decline feel slightly forced to me. But Sears's finely modulated production transmits a keen sense of the aching regret in this poetic and deeply humane piece and is a fitting tribute to Storey, who celebrated his eightieth birthday in July.

To 23 November; 020 7503 1646

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