“I still love you like in the beginning”
If you’re suffering from the January blues, then the theatre can often provide a convenient respite. But be careful about the show you pick, as following on from the tear-jerking Lovesong at the Lyric Hammersmith is another piece that seems determined to make you reach for the tissues – Tom Holloway’s And No More Shall We Part. A play about assisted suicide is rarely going to be easy viewing and in the intimate space downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre (I unwisely chose to sit on the front row), this two-hander is gently uncompromising stuff.
Pam is suffering from some unspecified terminal disease and has decided that she wants to take matters into her own hands and end her life whilst she still has her faculties and her dignity. But when the time comes, the tablets take much longer than anticipated to take hold and over several hours, horrified husband Don is forced to watch as the end comes, agonisingly slowly. The wait for release is interspersed with scenes from the recent past as we see Pam informing Don of what she has decided and his struggle to accept her wishes.
Stirring stuff but rather than go down the emotional manipulative route that Frantic Assembly took with Lovesong, James Macdonald’s production has a certain emotional distance about it with his two stagehands sat either side of the stage, passing up props to the actors and cueing light and sound in clear view. With the play taking place on a shiny (and ugly) black revolve, the effect is a little disconcerting and in some ways feels at odds with the naturalistic acting. But where the revolve does work is in allowing the action to flow easily from past to present, from the dining room discussions to the tormented bedside wait.
And it is most compellingly acted: Dearbhla Molloy plays the peaceful calm of a woman fully resolved to her course of action perfectly, a tower of unwavering single-minded strength softly explaining her reasoning and seeking support from a disbelieving partner. As Don, Bill Paterson has the tougher job, clearly a lot less keen on the idea of euthanasia and certainly not ready to say goodbye to his wife despite her determination. The play’s most affecting moments come from his face as he battles his doubts to come to some sort of acceptance and to embrace the fact that this is what she wants. This struggle continues even at, especially at, the bedside when the end seems so close and yet so far away and is delicately but urgently portrayed by Paterson.
Holloway’s writing is certainly thought-provoking, pushing us to think about the responsibilities of the decisions we would make and I think this is the only area where I felt he left Pam get away too easily perhaps. The way in which the couple’s children are excused from making an appearance at the final dinner is neatly done, but throws up one of the biggest dilemmas about the whole issue. How does one balance the wishes of the dying against the wishes of the living, Pam’s ‘selfishness’ in her determination to do everything her way can be seen as harsh – I don’t think I could have accepted having the last time I would be with my whole family taken away from me with the same equanimity that is apparent here – but also as highly protective, this is an illegal activity after all.
Having cried buckets at Lovesong, I was surprised to remain dry-eyed throughout this. That’s not to say that I wasn’t moved, but rather that it studiously shirks such overt emotionality and not always to its credit. Tonally it remains too flat even when shifting between time periods, and the pace doesn’t really vary enough, meaning that moments of dullness crept in. When the flashpoints come, they are gratefully received as they jolt the attention but again, it’s not always for the best – at one point the sweet reminiscences from the past are shoved aside for a dramatic revelation from each which ultimately leads nowhere.
And No More Shall We Part fits the brief of the Hampstead Downstairs policy extremely well in creation of a space in which to experiment and do something a little different. Personally, I’m not sure that James Macdonald’s production works that well in its decision to go a little off-piste, and I wish that Tom Holloway’s writing had been a little braver in creating a little more conflict or debate into what is such a contentious subject. But it’s all done with in 90 minutes and the opportunity of seeing such classy actors giving such beautifully understated performances in an intimate setting means that it is probably money well spent.