Review: Visitors, Arcola Theatre

“If I could choose any life, I don’t think I’d have things very different from this”

Angela Lansbury may be getting audiences on their feet on Shaftesbury Avenue but for my money, you should be racing over to the Arcola to catch some of the most intensely fantastic acting currently happening. Visitors is Barney Norris’ first full-length play, for the Up In Arms theatre company he co-founded with Alice Hamilton (who directs here), and as a piece of restrained – though hugely affecting – realism, it is an absolute cracker.

Norris examines the corrosive impact of dementia on a Wiltshire farming family with huge skill, deftly exploring the ways in which people make their way through such situations, with love, compassion, comedy, fear, confusion, denial. Both in their 70s, Arthur and Edie are perfectly attuned to each other after many happy years of marriage but though they would happily continue as they are, her declining condition is proving impossible to ignore.

Robin Soans and Linda Bassett are nigh on perfect as this pair. Norris’ characterisation is full of intimate detail and the comfortable grooves of a well-worn relationship and they’re both utterly convincing, their connection evident in their every shared glance, outreached hand or furrowed brow. He busies himself with the farm, she gets lost in flights of fancy about falafel recipes and booby-traps, but they’re always gorgeously, painfully, affecting as she slips further away.

But it is not just Arthur who is affected. Simon Muller’s Stephen is their son, going through his own midlife crisis and emotionally estranged by his parents’ closeness so that he predominantly sees them as a problem to be solved once the finances have been sorted. And Eleanor Wyld (an actress whom I’ve been watching with much interest) plays Kate, Edie’s carer who is a recent graduate, struggling with the fact that years of study have left her without direction or adequate preparation for the current economic climate.

Francesca Ready’s design adds a subtle hint of theatricality with its delicately flickering lightbulbs but Hamilton wisely keeps the focus on the acting. And why wouldn’t she? In Soans and Bassett’s pairing, there’s one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful depictions of a relationship, of any age, that you’ll see on a stage this year.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Booking until 29th March, then touring to Bury St Edmunds ,Oxford, Ipswich and Salisbury

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