A Queen's Hornchurch production
at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
for The Reviews Hub
This gentle comedy from sitcom master Bob Larbey celebrates its thirtieth birthday this year. Its West End production, starring George Cole, won Best Comedy of 1986. Jason Robards played Senior Citizen Cooper in the American version the next year.
But, though the piece continues to be popular on the amateur stage, this Hornchurch production is its first major revival since then.
Cooper – no-one calls him John – is living out his end days in a well-appointed Surrey rest home (a believable set by designer Anthony Lamble, opulently old-fashioned, but with an annoyingly reflective rear window). Along with his mucker Aylott, he endures the round of mealtimes and visiting hours, the palliative platitudes (“I hope I'm as lively as you at your age!”) as well as the natural shocks that flesh is heir to. The staff are the Panzer Division, the demented are the Zombies.
Variously described as a dirty old man and the acceptable face of senility, Cooper is engagingly played by William Hoyland, hardly ever off the stage, pottering about his spacious room, confiding in the audience. Jonathan to his David, Aylott (Robin Hooper) is a fussy little man, physically much more spry, but terrified of losing his mind. Their final scene is almost unbearably affecting, played with sensitive timing and understated emotion.
Good support from the staff: Connie Walker as the elliptical Mrs Baker, with her carpet sweeper and her obliging song. And Anna Leong Brophy as Nurse Wilson, caring for Cooper perhaps more than she should, touchingly human beneath the starched uniform. Cooper's daughter and son-in-law, whose reluctant monthly pilgrimages from Milton Keynes give the play its title, are Sophie Russell, whose scene alone with her father is one of the strongest, and Gareth Clarke, as her flat-roofed husband who could have strayed in from an Ayckbourn, a fine study in awkwardness.
“There's no drama, it just goes on ...” says Cooper of his life in the luxury of the home. And, as with Waiting for Godot, we see the day repeat itself: the mantras - “Much the same … mustn't grumble” and the difficult micturition.
Russell Bolam's production has some lovely moments – the mime at the start of the children's second Sunday visit – and delightful dream sequences between the scenes, flashing lights, an ironic Wakey Wakey from Billy Cotton, bizarre characters entering through wardrobe and fireplace, sand-dancing nuns, WG Grace, Aylott as a punk on skis. The song and dance to Flanagan and Allen's Miss You is particularly poignant.
The play is not always convincing – the children's change of heart in particular – and though there are chuckles of recognition there's little comfort for the silver heads in the stalls; the corridor, with its occasional tables and walking aids, runs through the auditorium. But the ending, with the 11th man in the 1947 MCC side still un-named, strikes just the right note of wry resignation.
photograph: Mark Sepple